LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rory McIlroy pauses at the top, just a brief hesitation, then delivers a meticulous measure that never veers from its intended target. In this forum, he is at once entertaining and awe-inspiring; those in attendance marveling at his ability to consistently perform with their collective glare wholly transfixed upon him.
There's no doubt that McIlroy is on his game right now. His interview game, that is.
As celebrated and formidable as McIlroy's on-course performance has appeared in recent weeks, he is similarly coming into his own in the media room, as comfortable with a camera lens and microphone in front of his face as he is with a pitching wedge in his hands. He is honest to a fault, equal parts charming and funny and engaging.
“Whenever I'm talking to you guys,” he told the media after his Sunday victory, “I want to try to be as open and as honest as possible and try and answer questions thoughtfully and articulately and just try and give you guys some good material.”
It sounds like a logical practice, especially when everything else is going in your favor. After all, there’s little to hide when your game consists of uncorking 350-yard drives down the fairway, piling up birdies and collecting trophies.
And yet, it's the very opposite of Tiger Woods' longtime strategy. Even when on top of his game, Woods has always taken pleasure in not just failing to disclose information, but actually crossing the lines to scramble our connection.
Perhaps that’s the most jarring repercussion of this transition from Tiger as the game’s best player to Rory holding that honor. While the former would only tell us what he wanted us to know, the latter grants us access to what we want to know. For example, while sitting next to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational trophy Sunday evening, McIlroy was asked how he spent the previous night.
He allowed that he watched the movie “Kick-Ass 2” – a fitting title considering his second consecutive win – and then shook his head and smiled while admitting he also caught some of the 1999 teen melodrama “Never Been Kissed.”
“That’s a little embarrassing,” he confessed.
But that’s just the thing. At least McIlroy does embarrassing, just like he offers admissions. It’s a stunning departure from the usual Woods rhetoric, which has rarely yielded a nugget which suggests he’s letting down his guard.
This isn't meant to only contrast these two players, though. Other top-ranked players have been similarly coy.
The man McIlroy unseated this week, Adam Scott, is as classy as they come, but he's not exactly the most forthright guy, earlier this year getting married before ever offering up that tidbit. When Martin Kaymer held that spot, he often looked like the kid in class silently praying that the teacher wouldn't call on him. Phil Mickelson has never ascended to that No. 1 position, but even his openness has always been tinged with agenda.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
There’s no rule which states professional golfers must always be honest – and certainly no rule which states they must divulge their innermost thoughts in the most introspective manner possible.
McIlroy has learned this the hard way. When he withdrew from last year’s Honda Classic, his management team quickly issued a statement blaming a bothersome wisdom tooth. That little half-truth reportedly led to the player splitting from his team soon afterward.
Compare that with how he handled the aftermath of his recent engagement breakoff with Caroline Wozniacki. He could have no-commented the story into irrelevance, but instead faced a firing squad of questions prior to the BMW PGA Championship and answered each one. Oh, and if there’s a lesson in here somewhere: He won the tournament.
In the interview room on Tuesday prior to this week’s PGA Championship, McIlroy wasn’t exceptionally candid. He was just himself.
On the increased media attention: “I try not to read too much of the stuff that's being written, because if you read everything that was being written, I'd turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I'd already won the tournament.”
On the secret to his power: “It's not like I'm going to get much bigger. I've put on three kilograms of muscle in the last eight weeks, so that definitely helps. I'm the heaviest I've ever been.”
On the current state of his game: “When I say I'm on my A-game, I think it's just everything; it just sort of feels comfortable. I feel like I drive the ball well, I hit fairways, I hit greens. I give myself plenty of chances for birdies. It's just, I play the right way.”
None of those responses led to any sort of epiphany, none of them caused observers to run toward social media with any breaking news.
But they did offer a little more insight into his thoughts and feelings, which is really all we can ask for.
That hasn’t always been the case for the game’s best player.