NASSAU, Bahamas – The many seasons of Rory McIlroy come with just as many faces.
There is the affable family man who paused Wednesday at the Hero World Challenge to check on everyone’s holiday plans. “Time at home,” he smiled when asked about his holiday agenda.
There’s the competitor who has won 20 times on the PGA Tour and yet is still prone to surprising moments of anger like two weeks ago at the European Tour finale when he emerged from the scoring area following a particularly eventful final round having torn a portion of his shirt.
And then there’s the 32-year-old who has always made a priority of taking ownership of his actions, be it a poorly hit 9-iron or a moment of anger that resulted in far too much social media chatter not to mention one too many misplaced jokes.
“Nice shirt, it’s in one piece?” joked a member of the assembled media on Tuesday at Albany.
“It is,” McIlroy allowed, “It's another joke you tried to make that's not that funny.”
Later in Wednesday’s meeting with the media, he was again asked about the “shirt” and again wasn’t in a gaming mood. “I went to the pro shop, bought a new one, threw that one in the trash. I mean, this [expletive] ripped shirt, Jesus,” he said.
It’s been, to be fair, an emotional year for McIlroy. He switched swing coaches and won at the Wells Fargo Championship. Then he switched swing coaches again (back to his childhood coach Michael Bannon) and won again at the CJ Cup. In between, there were countless peaks and valleys.
It was a reality that seemed to come pouring out of McIlroy at the Ryder Cup. After going winless in team play for the first time in his career he emerged from a hard-fought Sunday singles victory awash in emotion.
He’s covered how 2021 impacted him countless times but on Wednesday with a warm Caribbean sun splashed across his face he offered the simplest version, “Try less,” he said.
Later when he sat with the media he dug a little deeper.
“Yeah, there's been a few ups and downs,” he said. “There was a stretch during the year where I didn't feel like I was playing my best and went on a different path in terms of sort of looking for answers and came back sort of down that road, came back up that road and learned some things.”
Even the torn shirt in Dubai – where he began the final round with a lead only to post a closing 74, which included a particularly unlucky bounce off the flagstick at the 15th hole, to tie for sixth – was a learning moment.
“What I was angry about was how I reacted to the bad break, not the bad break or the fact I didn't win the golf tournament because Collin [Morikawa] played great,” he admitted. “Even if I hadn't had that bad break, there was no telling that I was going to win the golf tournament. It was just my reaction to that bad break that made me angry because I basically lost my head after that and made a bogey on 16.”
In many ways, McIlroy's 2021 is like the cliché – hate the sin, love the sinner. In this case, his worst sin was wanting to succeed too much. Or maybe it was not wanting to succeed enough. When it comes to McIlroy, it’s always complicated.
This week’s Hero World Challenge is a chance for players to put ’21 in context and look ahead to ’22, but for McIlroy, that’s probably a bit too much to unpack in a single week. As eventful as this year has been professionally it’s clear that for McIlroy, the father and husband, the juice has been worth the squeeze, as they say.
“I feel like I'm certainly a more wiser player than I was maybe nine months ago,” said McIlroy, the everyman smile returning just to prove the point.
The many seasons of Rory McIlroy have come with his share of smiles along with plenty of frowns which, at least for the Northern Irishman, only proves that he continues to evolve.