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Rory McIlroy has become the conscience of golf

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Rory McIlroy hit his last putt during an early morning pro-am at TPC Potomac on Wednesday, and the serenade followed. “Happy birthday, dear Rory,” sang the fans along the ropes and the players in his band.

On Father’s Day 11 years ago, at the course opposite here – the venerable Congressional Country Club – he won his first major, the US Open, as a 22-year-old bachelor. Wednesday, he is 33 years old, a husband and a father himself. He’s not just the most important star in a relatively weak field at this week’s Wells Fargo Championship. He is nothing less than the conscience of his sport.

He can answer questions about the direction of play. He can answer questions about the ethical consequences of participating in a potential PGA Tour rival backed by Saudi blood money. He can answer questions, as he did on Wednesday, about how the tour should reinvent the fall segment of its schedule. He will be thoughtful, reasoned and honest about them.

“For example, if I had been asked this question 10 years ago, I would have said, ‘What are you talking about? ‘” he said on Wednesday. “I just want to go golf and birdie.”

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So easy as a child in his early twenties. Much harder as a man nearing his thirties.

There’s a full circle in McIlroy’s appearance here that’s evident, as his accomplishment in Congress seemed transcendent: a dominating, wire-to-wire victory in which he fired four rounds in the ’60s posted the total the lowest and the lowest score. compared to normal in US Open history, and officially put behind a calamitous collapse at the Masters just two months earlier. It presented as a preview of what would surely be a series of majors thereafter.

“I still think today it was the best week of golf I’ve ever played in my life,” McIlroy said. “The ball was on a string that week, and you wish you could bottle it every week that you play. Sadly it’s not, but I think it’s still the benchmark for how I can play.

Even all these years, McIlroy is re-watching this week’s shows. If an eight-stroke victory in which he was never in danger of not losing the tournament can have a signature moment, it came Sunday at the par-3 10th in Congress. YE Yang, McIlroy’s partner in the final group, hit his tee shot from maybe six feet out. Rory’s Response: Throw it behind the flag, back it past Yang’s ball and almost break through. Ball game.

But in this week’s reviews, there isn’t a single swing or hole that McIlroy focuses on.

“Just kind of how smooth it was and how comfortable I looked,” he said. “Just sort of how comfortable I was with everything.”

So in these viewings, some are looking for that freedom that came with youth. McIlroy could retire before Thursday’s first round here – he’s the defending champion of a tournament normally held in Charlotte – and have an unassailable career record: 32 wins in the world, including four majors. But he remains a Masters short of a career Grand Slam, a point that was driven home when he closed with a 64 last month to finish second to Scottie Scheffler at Augusta National. It’s still amazing to think that his most recent major came eight years ago, his second PGA Championship.

So as he evolved and matured – a natural process for anyone between the ages of 22 and 33, whether golfer or greenskeeper – there is a pursuit to rediscover what made him what he is. was that week in Congress. Wednesday afternoon he was going back to see the Blue Course, because the club had given him an honorary membership and he wanted to see the renovations.

“As a member, I think it’s fair that I drop by and at least show my face,” he joked.

Maybe just being on the pitch would rekindle something inside. McIlroy spoke before the Masters about going through a period where he was “playing the golf swing rather than playing golf.” Look at those old Congressional swings, and there was nothing remotely technical or mechanical about them. The best version of Rory McIlroy is smooth and fluid, instinctive and creative.

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So he straddles two worlds, trying to find the best golf of his youth while being one of the game’s statesmen, even if he’s not yet the eldest. More than anyone, he criticized Phil Mickelson’s crude remarks about using the Saudi-backed league as leverage against the PGA Tour, even as Mickelson acknowledged the murderous regime of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He chastised the sport’s governing bodies – the US Golf Association and the R&A – for investigating needlessly and narrowly how to control the distance traveled by the golf ball, a report which concerns “0.1% of the golfing community. He played his pro-am Wednesday with four black golfers who went through the basic First Tee program and played at historically black colleges and universities, and understood the importance of a predominantly white sport. His word carries weight, no matter the subject.

“He’s proven himself on the golf course,” said Webb Simpson, a former US Open champion who sits with McIlroy on the tour’s Player Advisory Board. “I think he’s proven himself off the golf course. He’s a leader, I think, for us in many ways. Very articulate, and he’s been a global player for a long time now, so I think his opinions matter. …

“He’s definitely a guy who I think was fun to listen to because he’s not just going to give you the right answers. He’s going to give you what he thinks.

What he thinks when he is 33 years old is very different from what he thought when he was 22 years old.

“It’s something I had to learn,” McIlroy said. “It’s not something that has always interested me, but I think it’s something quite important – especially where the game is at the moment, making sure it goes in the right direction. direction.”

It is both the sport as a whole and its game in particular. Rory McIlroy’s best week of golf came as a kid on a course right across from where he is playing this week. As he searches for that feeling and form again, he does so as the deepest, most developed, and most eloquent voice in the sport. There’s accomplishment in that, whether he wins zero or 10 more majors.