PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was 2009 and Rory McIlroy, then 20, made his first appearance at the Players Championship, the tournament considered almost as prestigious as a major golf championship.
McIlroy, a flaccid prodigy at the time, recalled this week that his commitment to the 2009 event had spread at best. He attended a prize fight in Las Vegas the weekend before. The weekend of the tournament – after McIlroy was cleared of the league for shooting more than seven par – was misused, as McIlroy said, "Being thrown out of the bars because they had a fake ID."
On Tuesday, with a smile and an Irish-developed sense of understatement, McIlroy, this year's titleholder, added, "So I have come a long way."
The response applies to his golf results, but more authoritatively describes a new, naturally leading role that McIlroy has assumed among his generally conservative, cautious peers. In recent months, McIlroy has distinguished itself by taking bold, principled positions within a community of athletes who are a loosely aligned group of cautious self-employed entrepreneurs.
In December, McIlroy shunned a lucrative tournament in Saudi Arabia that attracted other top golfers, citing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and added, "There is a morality in it." Last month, McIlroy rejected the progress of the Premier Golf League, a deserved entry-level rival of the PGA Tour, which other top professionals had taken care not to openly reject. McIlroy, the top-ranked player in the game, said he defended every professional golfer's right to autonomy. He didn't want to take the money from the new league because he said, "They can tell you what to do. If they don't take the money, they can't."
Earlier this week Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour Commissioner, called McIlroy's statement, "A Moment of Leadership."
Now weeks after his 31st birthday, McIlroy is a particularly candid, widely accessible and become a candid voice on almost every topic when it comes to golf and the industry that envelops it. He doesn't expect this to change.
"Right now I think I have a bit of a responsibility – not just for myself for the other players, "said McIlroy." I have spoken out about some problems in golf and I am happy with that. I've been at the top of the game for a long time and I want to be a voice that can finally give a good comment on things.
His colleagues are listening.
"Rory respects us on and off the golf course, that's the beauty of it," said Webb Simpson, seventh in the world rankings. "I think he's great for our game; I think he's very mature. He is loved by all his peers."
Francesco Molinari, 2018 British Open Champion, said the comments from McIlroy on the Premier Golf League shaped his views on the subject.
"I agreed with what Rory said – we're lucky to be playing great schedules, so I don't understand why we really mess with it too much," Molinari said.
McIlroy has also garnered praise from former players. Golf Channel analyst David Duval recalled becoming the top-ranked golf player in the late 1990s and felt that status was the added challenge of being the primary voice of his sport.
“Was I most comfortable with it? & # 39; Duval said. & # 39; No, certainly not like Rory. But I expressed my opinion. The fact that Rory will give his opinion and play that role is absolutely necessary for this game.
Brandel Chamblee, Duval & # 39; s Golf Channel colleague and another former PGA Tour member, praised McIlroy's ethical views.
& # 39; I applaud the man & # 39; said Chamblee. "What he does on the golf course is one thing, but what he did in the media center, I mean, is rarer than the athletic skill he has."
In addition to his more prominent leadership role, McIlroy has also been playing his best wave since 2015, the last time he hit the No. 1 rankings. In each of his last six events, McIlroy finished in the top five. The near misses this year have only haunted McIlroy, who has won four major championships.
"If I keep positioning myself and if I can do a few different things in my golf game, a little better," he said. "That third and fifth place will hopefully be victories."
For McIlroy, growth as a golfer remains the primary goal in most respects on and off the course, for example this week he was philosophical about how as a young man he designed courses designed by Pete Dye such as the TPC Sawgrass format which annually hosts the Players Championship McIlroy has since won several championships on Dye courses.
"They're like beer when you're younger," McIlroy said of the Dye layouts. "You don't like it, but then think you think it's cool to drink and then you get a little taste for it. "