It's safe to say that Rory McIlroy has made more headlines than any golfer in the world this year. Despite winning just once in 2022 on the PGA Tour, he's played tremendous golf at the major championships (three straight top 10s) and has stood as the most interesting and prominent voice as it relates to LIV Golf, the Saudi Arabian-backed league that has swiped several of his fellow major champions from the PGA Tour.
McIlroy's voice matters because his golf has been tremendous for a decade and a half. He's won everything (well, except for one tournament -- more on that in a bit), and that gives weight to his perspective as it relates to the future of the sport.
In this exclusive, wide-ranging conversation with CBS Sports leading into the 150th Open Championship -- where McIlroy enters as the favorite -- he discussed his love for St. Andrews, ability to win the final major of the year, playing a recent round with Tiger Woods at Ballybunion Golf Club in Ireland, and of course, LIV Golf.
I'm contractually obligated to begin by asking what you're reading.
RORY McILROY: "I haven't went off reading, I just haven't been reading that much. I tried to read this book "Flow" at the start of the year, and I really had a hard time getting through it. I think once I couldn't, I just sort of said, 'You know what, I think I'm done for a little bit.' I've been watching some shows. I've been watching more Netflix and stuff like that recently. I pride myself on my reading, and to admit that I'm not reading a lot at the minute sort of hurts me."
What's been the best show you've watched recently?
McILROY: "'Inventing Anna.' I like that on Netflix. How she swindled all these people in New York out of so much money. That was a pretty good one."
Swindling people out of money seems apropos for the golf world. We recommended a book to each other called "The Master" about Roger Federer. In it, the author talks about something Federer does that I thought was so interesting. He takes in everything that goes on around him while he's playing. He internalizes everything. What you see at the end of some of his matches or tournaments is this emotion that comes out after he internalizes. It reminded me of something you said at [the U.S. Open at] Brookline about wanting to be aware of everything that's going on around you. Do you think you do that same thing Federer does?
McILROY: "A little bit. I'm not one to get in this sort of tunnel vision or tunnel focus whenever I'm on the course. I like looking around. Looking into the crowd. Looking over at other fairways or other greens, seeing guys hit shots. Looking at leaderboards, for example, seeing how other guys are doing. I find it very difficult to focus on just me and sort of forget everything else. I like to sort of have that peripheral vision of everything else that's going on.
"In a way, it helps me -- especially in golf -- switch on and off between shots. I think it would be very hard to concentrate for five hours in a round of golf. If you can learn to switch on and off a little bit, you're only having to concentrate for 10 or 15 minutes, and you can let your mind go other places in between shots, which I sort of like."
Do you think taking everything in is what has made you emotional after some of your wins and some of your rounds?
McILROY: "I think so. I've always been a big person of, 'What does this mean? What's the meaning behind things?' Sometimes, I maybe do that too much. It's hard for me to not put whatever I'm about to do in context with everything else. For example, the Ryder Cup last year and being emotional there. I was so aware of that was the first time I'd ever been dropped for a session. It was the first time I'd never won a point going into singles. There was a lot of meaning behind getting that win on Sunday, I think that's why I was emotional."
We've talked about how you've taken away a lot from other sportsmen like Federer and Rafael Nadal, and I'm curious about -- specifically with those two guys -- what you've taken away from them that you've applied to your own career that's been meaningful?
McILROY: "In my mind, I think I'm more Nadal than I am Federer. But I'm not. I just don't have his grit and will. I don't think anyone [does]. Roger, he just loves playing tennis. I think as I've gotten into the meat of my career -- my 15th or 16th year on tour -- I've really worked hard on making sure I still love the game of golf, and I don't just see it as a job or a means to end. That's probably the biggest thing I've tried to take out of what Roger has done. He's had this unbelievably successful and long career, but at the end of the day, he still loves playing tennis. I think that's really really important, and that's one of the big things I've tried to take from him."
How do you maintain that love for golf? I've talked to Charles Howell III about this, and he's like, "Man, tournament golf is not that fun. It's really hard and stressful and tiring." So, what engenders your love for golf?
McILROY: "You need to find that balance. I used to just play tournament golf, and that was it. I never really used to do anything else. I now really enjoy going home and playing with my dad over at Seminole or playing some money games up at The Grove. I never really used to do that that much. I've started to really appreciate those days on the golf course more probably the last three or four years. I think it's important to do that.
"Even that game with Tiger at Ballybunion a couple days ago, that's just a lot of fun to me. I think maybe, when I was younger, I wouldn't have thought that. It was almost like, 'No, I'm too cool to enjoy whatever it is, just going and playing a fun round of golf. That's beneath me.' But I really like that, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's nice to be able to enjoy things like that."
Speaking of the Tiger round, how did that come about?
McILROY: "We knew were both going to be here for the JP McManus Pro-Am. We just talked about maybe getting a round or two at some links courses nearby. We were talking about this probably the first two days of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills. It's been in the works for a couple of months."
I think everybody has this fantasy of playing a round at Ballybunion or wherever with Tiger Woods. What is the most fun thing about playing with him away from a tournament?
McILROY: "Tiger in the heat of battle and Tiger just messing around at Ballybunion is two completely different people. Going back to even his love for the game, his love of the intricacies of how to play the game of golf. The way he sees shots, the way he gets lost in the detail of how to play golf. Whenever you're talking about that and he's explaining it, it goes back to what I said about loving the game. He doesn't just love golf, but he loves the details of how to play certain shots and get better. He's so into that stuff. I think that's what's so cool. Twenty-five years into his career, he still loves that part of the game."
Is it as much fun to nerd out with him on golf stuff for you talking to him as it is for other people to listen to and watch?
McILROY: "I think so. I think just the fact that you're doing it with Tiger Woods is pretty cool. This is a guy, he was my hero growing up. You see all the shots he's played. All the iconic ones, like the chip at No. 16 at Augusta [National]. Watching back, some of the highlights of The Open at St. Andrews -- the two that he won there. Watching those and basically him talking about how he plays certain shots and what to do. For me, that's unbelievable. It's such a privilege and an honor that I get to spend that time with him, and he's giving me a game plan of how to play."
How tired are you of answering LIV Golf questions at this point?
McILROY: "A little tired, yeah, but it's not going away, so I've sort of resigned myself to the fact that I'm going to have to keep answering them."
Duringat the JP McManus, it seemed like your tone on LIV Golf shifted a bit from what it had been in the past. Why was that, or did it shift in your mind?
McILROY: "I don't think it shifted in terms of the internal dialogue that we've had going on for a while. I'm not going to get into the nitty gritty details of what's going on behind the scenes. In my opinion ... there's no room in the golf world for LIV Golf. Let's put it that way. I don't agree with what LIV is doing. If LIV went away tomorrow, I'd be super happy. My stance hasn't softened on that.
"But my stance on where the money is coming from is where I've sort of softened because I just look at every other sport and I see the money that's going in there and I can see what benefits that has. It's hard because, ultimately, do you want more money being invested into the PGA Tour? I think, yes, that would be great. And if these guys are willing to do that and scrap the whole LIV thing ...
"So, Yasir [Al-Rumayyan], the head of the [Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia], he loves golf. Do you think these people around him want to facilitate a meeting with the powers that be, whether it be Keith Pelley [CEO of the DP World Tour] or Jay Monahan [commissioner of the PGA Tour]? Probably not because, all of a sudden, their job is in jeopardy.
"My stance hasn't softened on LIV, per se. I don't agree with what they're doing in the sport. My stance has maybe softened on the investment side of things or in terms of: Is there a way [to] play ball and invest in the wider golf ecosystem where this can benefit everyone instead of just benefiting 48 guys? And that's sort of my whole thing on it. I don't know if that will ever happen, but that's basically what I was trying to say in those comments in that BBC interview a few days ago."
Why has your stance changed on where the money is coming from? I remember you had said -- and this might have been personal versus talking about the entire industry -- "Hey, I don't really like where the money is coming from."
McILROY: "I said that right before COVID. I said that Bay Hill in 2020, so two and a half years ago. It's changed because I see -- golf may be different -- but I see the money that's going into Formula 1, for example, or [into] European soccer or a world heavyweight title fight is just about to be in Saudi Arabia in a few weeks. They're investing heavily in sport, and I think our sport would benefit from that investment as long as it's done the right way. I don't want them to own golf like they're trying to do, but if they can sort of come and play nicely in the whole ecosystem, I think it could be a good thing."
150th Open at St. Andrews. It feels more consequential than most. I've never been to an Open, never been to St. Andrews, but it does feel consequential because of the way the golf year has gone. Does it feel more consequential to you, and if so, why?
McILROY: "For me, it feels more consequential because I've played really well the first three majors. I got off to a great start at Southern Hills, couldn't really keep it rolling. I had a decent chance at the U.S. Open as well. I finished second at Augusta, but I felt like I never had a chance that week. I've had three really strong finishes in the majors without getting over the line. I think, for me, that's why it feels more consequential. I'm going in knowing that I'm playing good golf, so it's another really good chance for me to break this drought I've been on for quite a while.
"As well, I missed the last Open at St. Andrews because I was injured. I never got a chance to defend my title from the previous year. I never got a chance to go to the champions dinner. Never got a chance to do this champions challenge -- the four-hole challenge -- on Monday. I really missed not being there in 2015, and I've had to wait seven years since then to get back. For me, personally, that's why it's more consequential."
St. Andrews is obviously special. Jordan Spieth said the other day that an Open at St. Andrews is maybe the best tournament that you play. What is about St. Andrews to you that is maybe underrated? Something you get to do there that you don't get to do elsewhere -- something that maybe people don't even know about that's special about St. Andrews?
McILROY: "Obviously, it's the 'Home of Golf.' It's the spiritual home. There's just a different feel. You stand on that first tee beside the R&A clubhouse, and you can't help but think about people playing there 150 or 200 years ago. It's special, it's different. [I] used to stay in the Old Course Hotel over there and hop the wall. Try to tee off early and get out in front of all the practice rounds. Tee off the second. You can play so many cool little loops as well. They're all double greens, so you can play 1-5 and then play 14 in. You can do so many little things there. When I first went to St. Andrews, I was like, 'I can't believe people rave about this golf course, it's so weird.' Then the more you play it, the more you appreciate it. It's so cool. It's unlike any other golf course in the world."
Going back to Tiger, it seems like he enjoys the mental tussle of links golf and specifically St. Andrews. Kind of the Rubik's cube of it -- is it the same for you?
McILROY: "I think so. I think there's that. Especially at St. Andrews, because of how big the greens are, it's all about angles. If the pin is on the right side of No. 3, for example, you can hit driver just up the left and get it close to the green. If it's on the left side, you're probably hitting an iron off the tee and making sure you have a full shot from the right side of that fairway into that pin. There's so many different ways to play it. From day to day, it varies so much how you play it depending on where they put the pin positions. Wind direction is obviously a big thing, too. It was designed to be played backwards, I guess, right? You can see it in the design.
"It's just a very, very unique golf course. I've played it a bunch of times in a bunch of different winds. That closing stretch can play pretty easy if you get it downwind, but you get 13 through 18 back into the wind, and it is brutal. It depends on conditions. It depends on wind direction, but it's a really cool track. That's why everyone loves playing there."
Do you hang out in the town at all during the week?
McILROY: "During the Dunhill, you can hang out in the town because it's not as busy, but during The Open -- I think they're expecting 300,000 people this year -- so I don't think I'll be venturing in too much. But during the Dunhill, it's nice to walk up into town and get some dinner. It's obviously not as crazy as an Open Championship is."
What's the best golf you've ever played?
McILROY: "Congressional 2011. Yeah, I felt like I couldn't miss. Not that I couldn't miss, but I look back at highlights of that week and the ball was just on a string. Some of the shots I hit ... just taking the flag out from 200 yards with 7-irons. That was more like lightning in a bottle. I've certainly had more consistent runs in my career where I've played very well for quite a long period of time, but just in terms of the best golf I've played for four consecutive days, I'd have to say Congressional."
Would you rather win an Open at St. Andrews or the Masters?
McILROY: "Right now, the Masters, probably. I'd like to win both. I'd like to just win The Open at St. Andrews and then win the Masters eight months after that. If you could just go back to back, that would be nice. Right now, where I am in my career, I'd have to say the Masters."
You par the Road Hole on Sunday, coming up the last with a three-stroke lead. After this weird summer and how much you've been at the epicenter of it, have you thought about what that would feel like and what your emotions would be like to end the summer with an Open win at St. Andrews?
McILROY: "No, I haven't actually thought that far ahead, which is unlike me. I mean, look, it would be incredible. It's all to do with the context. Whenever you say that, it's like, 'Oh, I'd join Seve with five.' The whole thing, where it puts you in history and who does it put you alongside. That's the really cool thing about golf. That's what I've always dreamed about. That's what I've always thought about. 'Oh, where would this put me in relation to the greats that have played the game?' Not just with everything else that's going on in the world of golf because that will pass and OK it might not be forgotten, but it won't be as big of a deal as whoever won the Open Championship. They're the real meaningful things in professional golf.
"I think Jack [Nicklaus] said back in the day, 'To be remembered in this game, you have to win an Open at St. Andrews.' Hopefully, if I never do that, hopefully, I'm still remembered, but it would certainly put me on a different plane, which would be really cool."