ATLANTA — Rory McIlroy walked toward the stage in the media room at East Lake, the FedEx Cup silver and shiny on the table, when he raised his arm and declared with a smile, “Super Bowl champ!”
That was more another dig at LIV Golf than sizing up his season.
The reference was banter he had exchanged with a reporter at the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs when asked if it was the hardest trophy to win. McIlroy would know better than anyone now that he’s a three-time winner, who also twice failed to win as the No. 1 seed.
“Is the Super Bowl the hardest trophy to win in football?” he asked on Aug 10.
Few things are lost on McIlroy. The lead attorney for LIV Golf had argued in a court hearing the day before that the FedEx Cup was the “Super Bowl of golf” in his unsuccessful bid for three players from the Saudi-funded league to play the postseason.
McIlroy rarely resists trolling LIV Golf or Greg Norman.
There also was plenty of truth to his eventual answer — McIlroy is not big on “yes” or “no” — on the difficulty of winning the FedEx Cup.
“It’s a weird one,” he said, and no one would dispute that when it comes to any playoff system in golf. “You have to play consistently good golf over the course of a 30-week season and then you have to get hot at the end of it again, as well.”
And that’s what he did. He wasn’t as good as Scottie Scheffler or Cameron Smith, but he was good enough to have a chance at the end. He was a long shot at the start and going into the final round, but he played his best on Sunday — with a lot of help from Scheffler and a little from Sungjae Im — to rally from six shots down and claim the $18 million prize.
Super Bowl champ? Sure.
Before he laid his hands on the trophy, however, McIlroy was quick to point out that Scheffler was the MVP.
“Firstly, there’s only thing I want to say: I feel like Scottie deserves at least half of this today,” McIlroy said at the trophy presentation. “He had an unbelievable season. I feel sort of bad that I pipped him to the post, but he’s a hell of a competitor. He’s an even better guy.”
He ended his praise by keeping score, and that also was telling.
“I told him we’re 1-all in Georgia,” McIlroy said. “He got the Masters. I got this.”
McIlroy was runner-up to Scheffler at Augusta National, though he was never seriously in contention. And it’s foolish to even ask which one McIlroy or any player would rather have. There are the majors. And there is the FedEx Cup.
At this stage in his career, money is not as meaningful as winning. McIlroy spoke of the three “Calamity Jane” putters in his trophy case — the prize for winning the Tour Championship.
He is the only three-time winner of the FedEx Cup. Left unsaid is that those “very cool” trophies all were won since he last captured a major. That remains the ultimate measure.
McIlroy was the only player to finish in the top 10 at all the majors this year. Of the three times he was in the mix, none crushed him more than the British Open at St. Andrews, where Smith simply outplayed him.
“I’ve been knocking on the door so much this year. St. Andrews was really hard for me,” McIlroy said. “This softens the blow a little bit. It doesn’t make it that much easier to get over, but it’s great to end the season on a high note like this.”
Perhaps that’s why his best friend and caddie, Harry Diamond, said to McIlroy when they finished, “All the good golf you played this year, you deserve this.”
There was a lot to unpack from McIlroy winning the Tour Championship and the symbolism of the strongest voice in the fight against LIV Golf winning what the PGA Tour describes as its “ultimate prize.” It was about more than money.
For McIlroy — and the entire FedEx Cup playoffs, for that matter — it was a reminder that while winning starts with having a chance, it can require a little more.
Will Zalatoris hit a tee shot in Memphis that nearly went out-of-bounds. Patrick Cantlay hit a drive in Wilmington that landed in just the right spot to bounce over a bunker and into the fairway. McIlroy hit a chip in Atlanta that should have gone off the green on the 70th hole except the pin got in the way.
McIlroy knows what it’s like to be the MVP without winning the Super Bowl. He won two majors in 2014 and lost to Billy Horschel on the final day at East Lake in 2014. He won two playoff events in 2012 and lost the FedEx Cup to Brandt Snedeker.
“The more times you just put yourself in the position, the law of averages suggests that you’re going to get it done at some point,” McIlroy said. “And that’s sort of what I’ve done in this tournament.”
Tiger Woods once said it can’t be considered a great year without a major. That’s still true. It was a great year for Scheffler.
All things considered — three wins, a third FedEx Cup and his role in helping to reshape the PGA Tour — McIlroy’s year wasn’t too far behind.