From The PGA Championship: Rory Goes Quiet, Some Winged Foot Comparisons and an All-Time Golf Nerdery

Andrew Redington. Getty Images.

Pittsford, N.Y. — He's done talking. That much is clear. Rory McIlroy's usually jolly at the mic, happy to answer any and all questions and make a quip in between. This…this was different. 

He warned us. Not so much with his words, but with his actions. After a bitterly disappointing missed cut at the Masters, the one major he's yet to win, McIlroy withdrew from the RBC Heritage despite knowingly breaking a PGA Tour rule he helped create. It cost him $3 million, but no matter. There is no price on peace of mind. Not when you have $300+ million in the bank. 

He then declined to do a press conference in his first start since that withdrawal, at the Wells Fargo Championship, in what must've been the first tournament he's played in a decade without speaking to media before. He said at a FedEx event that he was happy to be back in competition but he didn't look too enthused all week Quail Hollow. Not with his game—he was fighting a two-way miss, every professional's worst nightmare—and not with the game itself. It sure seems like something is off with Rory. He's been coy about it all, as is his right, but he certainly doesn't look like a guy enjoying his job at the moment. 

Maybe there's something more going on, or maybe it's just what he's been saying: that he is tired of acting as the PGA Tour's spokesman, that feeling so passionately about the schism in professional golf has zapped him of energy, and that he just wants to get back to talking about birdies and bogeys, not betrayal and legacy. 

"If it was me, I would possibly be investing a little bit of time and energy on to a feud that's not necessarily player versus player," Jon Rahm said of his decision to stay above the fray. "I don't have a personal issue with them, and there's no reason for me to make it. But yeah, I think it would—over a year, yeah, I think it could take some energy out of you.

On Tuesday at Oak Hill, McIlroy was asked point blank if he will make an effort to sidestep any discussions about LIV Golf. His answer: "Yeah." It wasn't far off from I'm just here so I don't get fined.

The transcript doesn't look all that abnormal—McIlroy said he's brought his coach, Michael Bannon, in for the week. He said he feels he's close and that his game feels good enough to win this tournament. But transcripts are misleading. This was a different, much more somber Rory McIlroy on Tuesday in Western New York. 

"If I don't win another tournament for the rest of my career, I still see my career as a success," said the newly turned 34-year-old Rory. "I still stand up here as a successful person in my eyes. That's what defines that."

It's possible he's trying to take pressure of himself. He's certainly succeeded toward that end. The expectations are lower than they've been at any major in the past half-decade. Maybe it's just what he needs to end a major drought that's dangerously close to reaching a full decade. 

Sort of like Winged Foot, sort of not

A fun side plot of non-Augusta major championship weeks is the process of learning a new golf course. There's often some existing material to draw from—like when a major returns to a Pebble Beach or a Shinnecock, or with the Open Championship rota—but this week at Oak Hill presents a new test entirely. Sure, they've had major championships before, but not since Andrew Green came in with a machete, chopped down a bunch of trees, molded a few new holes and restored the course to Donald Ross' original design. Most guys play all 18 on Monday to familiarize themselves with the layout; even those who played the 2013 PGA here feel they're playing essentially an entire new golf course. 

With the human brain's tendency to anchor to past memories, there's always a temptation to compare certain courses to other ones. That's especially true if the courses happen to be in the same state. No matter that Rochester is about as close to Westchester County as Westchester County is to Washington D.C.; they're both in New York, and so compare we shall. 

"I look at a golf course like this and I think it's quite similar to what we faced at Winged Foot in 2020 in terms of long golf course: long rough, pretty narrow fairways, but there's a lot of openings into the greens," McIlroy said. "You can run the ball up. The fairways are pretty firm and those aprons are certainly running. There's two different trains of thought of how to play that. It's playing from the fairway and being able to get a little closer to those tight corners, or you can just get it up there as far as possible and try and run it up the front of the green, which basically most greens allow you to do. Obviously there's a certain style of play that worked pretty well in 2020 at Winged Foot, and I guess, as I said, it remains to be seen what sort of golf wins this week."

He's referring to the bomb-and-gouge fest of three years ago, where Bryson DeChambeau bludgeoned A.W. Tillinghast's masterpiece West course into submission with a brutish performance. The general consensus in the golf world is that the USGA got it wrong that week: the fairways were so narrow and so canting that no balls stayed in them. And when everyone's missing fairways, including the shorter guys, it essentially becomes a contest of who can miss the fairway further. That, coupled with Winged Foot's greens having runways in front, allowed DeChambeau to muscle wedges that would roll onto the green. 

Joe Skovron, caddie for Tom Kim, sees Oak Hill differently: "I didn't think of Winged Foot at all. A ton more balls will stay in the fairway this week."

To these two eyes, it looks like a test all its own. The fairway bunkers are deep and penal, with steep faces. The rough isn't very long but it's dense and will remove any ability to control spin. The greens are bigger than they were in 2013 but it's still got Donald Ross written all over it, which means a bunch of perched-up greens that you simply can't miss long on. It's going to require discipline and it sure seems like another difficult PGA Championship is on our hands, continuing a trend started at Bethpage and continuing through Kiawah and Southern Hills. 


"I think it feels like the traditional kind of what you would picture American golf to be," Max Homa said. "And I do, I think a golf course like this requires a lot of precision, and when you come play a major, I feel like that's what it should require. You shouldn't be able to get away with too much. It's unique to what we typically -- I guess not typically. It's unique to what we play in a way because these days, although we'll have rough that's long, it usually feels like we can work our way around how difficult it is, especially around the greens. But the type of grass out here is different than pretty much anything I've played on, so it's pretty demanding, and I like that.

Jon Rahm might be the biggest golf nerd of all 

He wears the "golf nerd" label proudly. So many golfers—Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele come to mind—tell us they try to get away from the game when they're not at a tournament. Jon Rahm is the polar opposite. He thinks about it constantly. He watches highlight videos from old tournaments on YouTube. And he doesn't even try to play it off as part of his job. 

"I just like it. Even if it's not major season I'm doing it at home. I've seen on social media about every Sunday round you can find about Augusta and most majors. For the most part, most majors would do like a one-hour documentary of the entire tournament. You'll see a lot of -- it's not research. I just like it. It's just fun. I'm a golf fan, as well. I'm a fan of all those players out there as well. It's enjoyable."

On Tuesday, he weaved a number of semi obscure golf references into his answers. 

On the 1967 U.S. Open: "What Jack did I think in -- where was it? At Baltusrol, right? How he said every time he went in the rough he was going to lay up, and on 18 he laid up, hit the 1-iron, and then made birdie."

On an old Arnold Palmer quote: - "I think Arnie said it. The road to success is always under construction."

On Tiger Woods' old swing changes: "It would be very similar to what Tiger might have said in '98 in the middle of swing changes. You can't declare your year a success, you can't be improving in many parts of your game -- in certain aspects it might pay dividends down in the future."

On Walter Hagen: "Surprisingly it's not really a name that jumps up to a lot of people when you talk about the history of the game. I'll say a lot of people wouldn't even know if it wasn't for the legend of Bagger Vance."

On Monday, Rahm showed off his trivia tops by answering a Dozen question about one of his favorite shows, the Big Bang Theory.

Feels like we have to get him involved in the future, because he'd be an absolute horse in the golf category. 

We'll have more for you every day from the grounds of Oak Hill. Happy major week!