Cha-ching! Rory McIlroy on target to enjoy the richest season in golf history
If Rory McIlroy’s appearance last weekend at his beloved Manchester United taught us anything, it was that money could not buy him taste.
Sporting a Poulter-esque tartan suit that looked inspired in equal parts by Noddy Holder and Rupert the Bear, he made the type of sartorial statement that ill behoved a man who had just earned £2.9 million for four weeks’ work.
Perhaps these are the lapses to which he is susceptible when he is not dressed from head to foot by Nike.
Forgivably, McIlroy has indulged himself this past fortnight. No sooner had dusk settled at Valhalla upon his second major triumph in a month than he was on a private jet bound for New York, where he could shelter from the paparazzi after all-night Manhattan revelries at his favourite hotel, the Fitzpatrick by Central Park.
Then, en route to family reunions in Northern Ireland, there was the small matter of a dinner in Manchester hosted by Wayne Rooney, ably sublimating the dismay of defeat to Swansea to toast the returning champion.
It is one of McIlroy’s more endearing facets that, having found a multitude of means of achieving victory, he has also developed manifold ways of celebrating them extravagantly.
“Right now, I’d like to enjoy what I’ve done,” he said, grinning alongside the PGA’s gigantic Wanamaker Trophy, a prize half as tall as him. The mindset was understandable: McIlroy, clutching a fourth major title to put him within one of matching Seve Ballesteros at the age of 24, wanted to imbibe the joys of a summer he might never match again.
Only today, in the surrounds of Ridgewood Country Club, New Jersey, is he ready to heed the dubious wisdom of Ernie Els and “get the wheelbarrow out”.
In golf, “wheelbarrow time” refers not to the collection of autumn leaves but of quite colossal quantities of greenbacks.
Dollar bills float in the air as if shed by sugar maples in the valleys of Vermont, as the game’s elite embark upon a month-long quest for a $10 million FedEx Cup bonus, the greatest individual bounty in sport outside of a Floyd Mayweather bout.
If we leave aside the tastelessness of this exercise – given that the concluding Tour Championship takes place at East Lake, Atlanta, until recently one of the starkest areas of urban deprivation in the US – we must surely recognise that this represents McIlroy’s chance to become not just the most decorated golfer of his generation, but the most minted.
Should McIlroy repeat his 2012 feat of winning two of the four play-offs, as well as the $10 million cheque that fractionally eluded him then, his on-course earnings would pass $20 million (£12 million) for the year.
Tiger Woods, in a record-shattering 2000 season where he won three of the four majors, accumulated $21.2 million (£12.8 million) if figures are adjusted for inflation, which leaves his heir presumptive well-poised to enjoy the most lucrative year in golf there has ever been.
The £12.7 million that Woods accrued in 2007, not to mention the £9 million that McIlroy himself gathered two years ago, are figures that will soon be left far behind.
Even after the FedEx Cup finale, McIlroy could garner another £2.3 million in November from the two events he is likely to play in Shanghai, before the formality of his bonus for conquering the European money list in the Race to Dubai – where he has already earned more than twice as much money as nearest pursuer Sergio García.
For the moment, McIlroy regards his astounding form as an ephemeral pleasure.
“I have been the dominant player over the past few weeks, but it’s at the point where I want to continue to do that, to hold on to this position for as long as I can,” he said.
We can be assured, however, that Woods, even with an injured back that will keep him on the margins until December, is not prepared to cede the No 1 mantle lightly. McIlroy disclosed on Wednesday night that Woods, once his idol and now his Nike stablemate, told him this week: “I’m not going to let you win a green jacket next year.”
At the 2015 Masters, McIlroy could complete a career grand slam on the Augusta stage that proved a vale of silent torture just three years ago, when he let slip a four-shot overnight lead. It is an overriding priority, but Woods clearly feels reluctant to allow the young pretender to establish a monopoly.
In the ultimate analysis, he has won 79 PGA Tour titles to McIlroy’s nine, and the Northern Irishman still requires another 10 majors, twice Ballesteros’ career, to reach Tiger’s total.
While the two of them have been as buddy-buddy of late as a pair of frat-boys – appearing together on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night chat show, throwing buckets of ice over each other as part of an ever-spreading charity craze – a ferocious mutual competition smoulders not far below the surface.
“Tiger kept telling me that he wasn’t done yet,” McIlroy said.
That dig between the shoulder-blades was, in all probability, triggered by his discussion on New York television of Woods’s halcyon years in the past tense.
But under gentle provocation, he remained admirably diplomatic yesterday in the shadow of Woods’s accomplishments, arguing: “I don’t think a torch has passed, and I don’t think any torch will ever be passed.”
There was an inescapable sensation, though, as McIlroy’s US PGA win was juxtaposed with only the fourth missed cut of Woods’s professional life, that a changing of the order had begun.
Woods has recovered from a poor PGA performance before, rallying from another early exit in 2011 to win five times last year, but with an overhauled swing, a reconstructed left knee and an ever-suspect back, the weapons are not what they were.
McIlroy, by contrast, is a physical specimen transformed by his new-found dedication to the gym, as he learns to combine his metronomic accuracy with 360-yard drives that even sail past those of Bubba Watson.
Extraordinarily, he also appears capable of keeping his equilibrium in the celebrity maelstrom around him. McIlroy offered fresh insights into less-explored areas of his day-to-day living as part of a Facebook conversation with PGA Tour aficionados, explaining that he would like to watch Colin Farrell play him in a film – ideally a comedy – of his life, and that he was guilty of having “too many” drinks from out of the Claret Jug.
After the glories of Hoylake, McIlroy was pictured taking the venerable old decanter out into the bars of Belfast, where he and his childhood friends filled it up with a Jägermeister of 10.
But if we suspected that the euphoria might be distorting his focus, he promptly secured his first World Golf Championship title at Akron and his second PGA in Louisville.
Whereas his first two majors had each been won by eight shots, he grasped his fourth, more rewardingly, being three shots down with nine to play. In honour of Kentucky, land of a thousand whiskies, Mcllroy was even asked whether he preferred scotch or bourbon. “Scotch,” he replied, emphatically.
Today, McIlroy’s game face will be reapplied, as he resumes his phenomenally remunerative business. He has said more than once during this spectacular summer that he never wanted a normal life, and the promise of FedEx Cup riches could transform it even more.
The boy from Holywood now possesses the West Palm Beach mansion, the private-plane access, the sponsorship deals from Nike and Omega, and can claim to have both Woods and Jack Nicklaus on permanent speed-dial.
The next five weeks, ending with a turn as Europe’s talisman at the Ryder Cup, should help define him further.
One must just hope that this time, McIlroy does not miss his alarm call and rely on a passing policeman’s benevolence to make his Gleneagles tee-time.
Then again, he still won a crucial singles match at Medinah despite needing only 20 minutes’ practice on the putting green. He is, as his groaning bank balance attests, a golfer without peer. Even if we cannot stop him from appearing at Old Trafford in a Bay City Rollers outfit.