Rory McIlroy returns to play his first Open Championship at St Andrews since 2010… and there’s no way he’s risking missing this one!
Today’s Golfer’s 2022 Major coverage is brought to you in association with TaylorMade.
Unless he’s watching his beloved Manchester United or Northern Ireland play, Rory McIlroy no longer seeks out a football.
Having won the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool, McIlroy was due to head to St Andrews as the reigning champion, with four Major titles already under his belt. He was in the form of his life, riding high in the world rankings, and many people’s favourite to lift the Claret Jug on a course he loves. And then disaster struck.
Less than two weeks before the 145th event, McIlroy ruptured the ligaments in his left ankle while playing football with friends and was forced to withdraw, becoming the first Open Champion not to defend his title since Ben Hogan in 1954.
“Any time I go back home, one of the things that I regularly do with my friends is play football,’ he said at the time.
“That was like the fourth or fifth time in a 10-day period where I had played football. I enjoy it. We all enjoy it.
“And it’s unfortunate that it happened. It can happen walking off a tee box. It can happen falling off a curb on the side of the street. It can happen doing anything. And unfortunately, my foot just got stuck on the turf and went over on it.”
The injury caused permanent damage, leaving him with two ligaments on the outside of his ankle instead of three, and forcing him to adopt specific gym routines to help “maintain the integrity” of the ankle.
At the time of the injury, he said he’d continue to play football – “I enjoy having that normality in my life, something that I’ve done since I was a kid and I won’t stop doing that” – but he admitted in his chat with TG that the time he has kicked a ball since has been for media or promotional reasons.
And McIlroy certainly won’t be kicking one ahead of the 150th Open, which will mark his first Major start at St Andrews in 12 years.
The 2010 Open holds mixed memories for the Northern Irishman. The then 21-year-old, who was yet to win his first Major, took The Old Course apart in the opening round as he shot a nine-under-par 63 (only the eighth in the tournament’s history) to equal what was the lowest score in Major history.
In ideal conditions, he made seven birdies and an eagle, and played the last ten holes in eight-under to lead by two shots from eventual winner Louis Oosthuizen after the opening day.
But, if ever proof was needed that golf is hard, day two saw McIlroy stumble to an eight-over-par 80 in tough afternoon conditions to find himself 11 shots off Oosthuizen’s lead at the halfway stage.
Weekend rounds of 69 and 68 saw the now four-time Major champion finish in a tie for third and, excruciatingly, exactly the eight shots he’d lost on Friday back from the South African.
McIlroy has played plenty of rounds on the Old Course since then, competing in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship alongside his Dad Gerry, but he is yet to pick up a win at The Home of Golf – something he’s desperate to change at The Open.
We sat down with Rory to discuss his game plan for St Andrews, his love of the Old Course, his role on the PGA Tour, the Ryder Cup, LIV Golf, and his relationship with Jack Nicklaus..
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This will be the first time you’ve played an Open at St Andrews in 12 years. Do you ever wonder what might have been had you not suffered that freak injury before the Championship in 2015, when you’d have been doing in as defending champion?
Well, I was playing so well going into St. Andrews and then obviously I got the injury, so it was tough because I feel like the momentum I had in the Majors was sort of halted right then. And then my Majors since then have been sort of stop and start. I’ve had some chances at the Masters, The Open, the US Open so it is a little bittersweet going back in a way but I’m happy to be going back.
I’d love if they played The Open at St Andrews every year. Get rid of the rota and just do that. I’m excited to go back there because I play that course well. I have good memories there, good feelings, and so I’ve just got to wrap myself up in cotton wool for the month of June so that I can get there in July.
Does it feel like there’s unfinished business for you there?
Yeah, twice it’s been delayed for me. I had that bad round in 2010 on the second day after opening with 63 and then not being able to play in 2015 and then having to wait two extra years to play because of Covid.
In a way, there’s sort of unfinished business there, but you can’t go into an event thinking that way. You’ve just got to go and play, but I’ve certainly missed St Andrews because it’s been a while. I’ve played the Dunhill Links and played St Andrews a lot since 2015.
Have you played football since rupturing your ankle ligaments?
No, not at all. Totally not worth it for me (laughs).
Have you always enjoyed playing the Old Course – because it can polarize opinion?
It’s such a cool place. Just think of the history and the people that have played there, the people that have won the Claret Jug there. I learned to love the Old Course, I learned to appreciate it. I think you have such high expectations going there and then my expectations at the start didn’t live up to that, but once you start going back you start to appreciate everything that it is.
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St Andrews seems to fit your game well…
Yeah it does, it’s a simple strategy: Avoid the bunkers, keep it left, and make sure your lag putting is in good shape. Then you’ve got a good chance.
Jack Nicklaus told us you’ve shared a few lunches together recently. What kind of advice has he been giving you?
I see Jack all the time at home, I see him at the Bear’s Club. I’ve had lunch with him twice, maybe three times, but it’s one of those things where I’m sitting there and he joins me or I join him.
I just love how simple he makes the game seem. He was a master of just simplifying everything he did, not overcomplicating it. At the heart of it, this game is simple if you break it down. And he really has a great way of articulating that.
He’s so sharp. He remembers all of those times when he’s been in contention and those big moments and it’s cool just to hear stories about the older guys like [Tom] Watson or [Lee] Trevino or Arnold [Palmer] or Gary [Player] or whoever it is. It’s always just a pleasure to spend some time with Jack.
Have you had a chance to play the Marco Simone course ahead of next year’s Ryder Cup?
I don’t know much about it at all and I need to find out. Hopefully there’s an opportunity in the next 12 to 18 months to get over to Rome and play it, whether that’s in the Italian Open or not.
I think one of the big things coming out of last year at Whistling Straits was that the American guys just seemed to know the course a little bit better and they seemed more comfortable on it. I’m not saying that’s the reason that they won, I just think they played better than us across the board.
Home Ryder Cups seem to be more of an advantage than they ever have been so I think it’s important for the Europeans to use all that advantage as best we can.
What kind of changes are you campaigning for in your role as chairman of the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council?
There’s a few things, obviously the game of golf is heading in different directions. We’ve got a concept out there that has premium players, limited fields and opportunities only for a few people. Then you have what the PGA Tour and DP World Tour have which is a wonderful product, opportunities for more than just 48 players, and I think it’s trying to find a balance of the two.
I think there’s some way that all of this can work together and that’s the big challenge right now, to give the fans what they want in terms of some of these concepts and formats but also make sure we’re giving every professional golfer a chance to make a living and to try and play in as many tournaments as possible.
What do you feel is your role with Team Europe at the moment?
I feel like I’ve taken on a leadership role within the European team the last few Ryder Cups probably from 2014 onward. But it’s a role that I enjoy and there’s a few leaders on our team now as we’ve got Jon Rahm and myself. Even Viktor Hovland – he’s only played in one Ryder Cup but next time he’ll be someone that some of the other rookies might look up to.
It’s important to have a cohesive team and have everyone on the same wavelength. I think some of the leaders of the team and the captain set the tone for the week and that’s sort of always in the back of my mind that I try and always lead by example.
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