Crushing blow for US Tour's box office as McIlroy opts out
LEE WESTWOOD knocked Tiger Woods off the top of the world last week but Rory McIlroy showed his sport the true shape of things to come as far back as last May.
As Woods plumbed dark depths of despair on the Friday afternoon at Quail Hollow, missing the cut as he slumped to a dismal 79, golf wondered how it might cope with the falling of its greatest star.
Over the next 48 hours, that finger-wringing would be forgotten as the young man from Holywood, Co Down produced a tsunami of excitement with one of the most thrilling tournament victories in recent PGA Tour history.
It was like watching golf's changing of the guard that weekend as McIlroy blitzed the opposition, including Masters champion Phil Mickelson, and tamed one of the most prestigious courses in America with rounds of 66 on Saturday and a staggering 62 on Sunday.
As Tiger tumbled from the stratosphere this year, taking TV ratings down with him, PGA Tour officials found hope and comfort in the emergence of a new superstar.
There are many hot prospects in the USA, none brighter than Rickie Fowler. Yet McIlroy has that rare spark of genius -- a wonderful, natural talent which permits him to reach well beyond confines of golf and thrill all sports fans.
It's yet to happen for McIlroy at the Majors ... we were given just a fleeting glimpse of his true potential at St Andrews in July when the 21-year-old shot a sensational, record-equalling 63 in the first round of the British Open.
Should McIlroy perform as spectacularly well over the weekend at Augusta National, let's say, as he did at Quail Hollow, the seismic impact could almost be as big as the breakthrough of Eldrick Woods at the 1997 US Masters.
Those who run the world's professional tours fully understand McIlroy's box-office potential and the vital role he is capable of playing in maintaining his sport's popularity at a time of global recession.
That's why it'll come as a crushing blow to the biggest golf entity of them all, the US PGA Tour, to learn of McIlroy's decision to give up the card he took out for 2010.
And why the European Tour will rejoice.
For decades, since the PGA Tour threw up the shutters and made superstars like Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo feel welcome in the States, the tide of talent has flowed westwards across the Atlantic.
Yet, with three of the six Europeans who feature in the world's current top 10, Westwood (No 1), US PGA champion Martin Kaymer (No 3) and now McIlroy (No 9), committing fully to their home circuit in 2011, the stock of the notional second Tour has been given a phenomenal boost at the most opportune time.
The presence of Westwood and Kaymer in the world's top three certainly underlines how much the balance of power has shifted in recent years. Provided they acquit themselves well in the Majors and WGCs, European players no longer need fear being placed at a disadvantage in the world rankings should they stay at home.
On the other side of the coin, world No 10 Graeme McDowell decided, in the wake of his US Open victory at Pebble Beach, to take out his PGA Tour card, though he's not planning to play as many events in America as Paul Casey (No 7), Luke Donald (No 8) or his near-neighbour at Lake Nona, Ian Poulter (No 15).
World No 20 Padraig Harrington -- whose principal sponsor, FTI is a New York-based financial consultancy -- will continue to hold full Tour cards on both sides of the Atlantic and fulfil with little difficulty the undertaking to play at least 15 PGA Tour events and 13 sanctioned by Europe; Florida-based Ernie Els will concentrate for the most part on playing in the US in 2011.
It's a matter of personal preference and even though he'll be unable to play for the $10m FedEx Cup bonanza, McIlroy won't lose out financially because of his decision. For example, he's earned just €2.43m as a dual-Tour player in 2010, considerably less than the €3.73m he pocketed last year.
Of course, McIlroy can still accept seven sponsors' invites in America on top of the Majors and the World Golf Championships, so he's almost certain to defend at Quail Hollow and, doubtless, will be welcome at The Players at Sawgrass.
Frankly, he's once again shown remarkable resolve and maturity with his ability to make difficult decisions. Less than 12 months ago, McIlroy went against the advice of his back-room team at ISM and senior stablemates like Darren Clarke and Westwood, to try his luck in the US.
Having tried it for himself, McIlroy plainly believes he'll have better quality of life in the more sociable environs of the European Tour and by spending more time at home in Northern Ireland with family and friends.
This in turn will give him greater opportunity to indulge in his twin passions of following Manchester United and the Ulster rugby team. Much to the delight of the European Tour, McIlroy's in the glorious position of knowing what he wants from life and how best to achieve it.