MEXICO CITY – On Wednesday, Rory McIlroy’s voice carried across the professional golf landscape, the Northern Irishman drawing a hard line in the proverbial sand in what’s shaping up to be a potentially house-dividing clash between the PGA Tour and a proposed upstart circuit.
On Thursday, he spoke even louder with his clubs on his way to a first-round 65 and a two-stroke lead at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Simply put, it was Rory McIlroy doing Rory McIlroy things.
He was second in the field with a high-altitude aided 326.3-yard driving average; he eagled his second hole of the day (No. 11), thanks to a 279-yard 4-iron to 16 feet; and he needed just a 9-iron for his second shot at the par-5 15th hole after a 378-yard drive.
That he set the pace on the windiest day since the year’s first WGC bolted South Florida for the tree-lined Chapultepec Golf Club only proved what we already know about McIlroy – he’s good at golf.
“I don't know if we've ever played this golf course in as much wind as today, especially some of the gusts that got up to maybe 10 or 15 mph,” said McIlroy, who finished runner-up to Dustin Johnson last year in Mexico. “Pulling clubs and sort of trying to figure out how the wind is going to affect the ball up here was a little tricky, but I felt like [caddie Harry Diamond] and I handled that pretty well.”
If that seems as if McIlroy is underplaying his opening effort, it’s because he is. He didn’t call his round on Wednesday, but he did seem to state the obvious when he was asked if he could see himself shooting 21 under par this week. “I mean, yeah, I can,” he shrugged.
It likely won’t take anything close to 21 under, Johnson’s winning total last year, to take the trophy if the high winds persist but at his current pace it will take Herculean effort to beat Rory.
It was during this run-up to the Masters last year when McIlroy embraced a more wholistic outlook. Heading into the 2019 WGC-Mexico Championship he’d finished in the top 5 in his first three starts of the year and when he found himself a runner-up in Mexico some began to question his ability to close.
McIlroy never worried. He never wondered. He knew he was on the right path and broke through with a commanding performance a few weeks later at The Players. It was a victory that set the stage for his Player of the Year season.
Those with no sense of history fell into a familiar trap after last week’s tie for fifth at the Genesis Invitational. He began the final round tied for the lead in Los Angeles but derailed his title chances early with a double-bogey 7 on the fifth hole.
“I played 17 holes in 1 under par [in Los Angeles] and then I obviously had a bad hole on the fifth, but I actually took a lot of positives from Sunday,” he explained after being asked the difference between last Sunday and Round 1 in Mexico.
Thursday’s play actually felt more like a continuation of last week, not a rebound.
Perhaps the only thing that was different was McIlroy’s place in the game following his comments a day earlier regarding a proposed tour that’s attempting to woo some of the game’s top players away from the PGA Tour.
Until this week most players had offered only glancing assessments of the Premier Golf League, but on Wednesday McIlroy became the first star to dig in against the league.
“The more I've thought about it, the more I don't like it,” he said. “For me, I'm out. My position is I'm against it until there may come a day that I can't be against it. If everyone else goes, I might not have a choice, but at this point I don't like what they're proposing.”
If you doubt the reach of McIlroy’s voice consider that within hours of his comments regarding the PGL some players, including Bubba Watson and Xander Schauffele, joined him on the PGA Tour side of the divide.
As the world’s top-ranked player there will always be a degree of gravity to McIlroy’s comments, but his decision to speak out so early and so vehemently sent an undeniable statement. The PGL concept isn’t on the mat just yet but it certainly took a blow.
All things considered it was a good Wednesday for McIlroy followed by an even more impressive Thursday.