ATLANTA — Rory McIlroy can keep a secret. Same for his caddie, Harry Diamond. They sat on the exciting news that McIlroy’s wife, Erica, was expecting a baby for a good bit of the PGA Tour’s restart of tournaments. Keeping that bottled up could not have been easy.
It certainly didn’t help his golf.
While it might simply be coincidence, there is no question that McIlroy’s game was not the same in the eight tournaments he played since the PGA Tour returned from the coronavirus shutdown. He didn’t post a single top-10. He was not a factor over the final 9 of a tournament.
On Friday — four days after the birth of his daughter, Poppy — McIlroy shot 64 at in opening round of the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup finale. It was his best score since he opened the Travelers Championship with a 63 on June 25.
“It’s a little bit of a relief,” he said.
McIlroy disclosed last week at the BMW Championship that Erica was due any day. He wouldn’t use it as an excuse, but surely the impending birth of a first child had his mind elsewhere. He left the Chicago area somewhat anxiously on Sunday night, a tinge concerned that he might not make the birth.
“I was in a hurry,” he said. “I don’t know if there was panic, but you want to be there.”
The baby was born in Jupiter, Florida at noon on Monday.
“Subconsciously there was probably something in there that was lingering,” said McIlroy, whose 64 matched the best score of the day but left him four strokes back of Dustin Johnson in the strokes-altered event. “But I think it was just a perfect storm of that going on in my life and really not adjusting well to life without fans out here, as well, and just not really getting any energy.
“I’ve seen signs of my game that’s getting a little better over the last couple weeks. I played OK last week in Chicago. It’s nice when you come here, even though I’ve had success here, I was coming in with no expectations. Golf was the furthest thing from my mind.”
McIlroy said he did not touch a club from the time he finished Sunday at the Olympia Fields until Thursday, when he arrived at East Lake, took his mandatory COVID-19 test, waited for the result, then headed to the practice range to practice with Diamond.
McIlroy then got in a quick nine holes of preparation and wasn’t sure what to expect.
“It could be the secret,” he said. “Show up the day before you’re supposed to tee off. Golf was the last thing on my mind at the start of the week.”
Something clicked, as McIlroy birdied the opening hole and had eight birdies against two bogeys. He birdied the final three holes to move to 9 under in the Tour Championship’s staggered strokes format that saw him begin the day seven strokes back of Johnson.
As the FedEx Cup leader, Johnson started at 10 under. He shot 67 and is tied with Jon Rahm at 13 under. Justin Thomas is two strokes back, followed by McIlroy, who won the tournament a year ago when it went to this format for the first time.
In 2019, McIlroy began five strokes back of Thomas, shot the lowest 72-hole score and came away with his second FedEx Cup title. He’s in the running to become the first player to win the title three times.
“The idea is to creep a little bit closer every day,” he said.
In normal times, McIlroy might be excused if he let his game slide, with such an exciting personal occurrence to occupy his life. The Tour Championship is the end of the current PGA Tour season, and he typically might take a long chunk of time off.
But due to the pandemic, the U.S. Open is now just two weeks away. The Masters is in November. There are a couple of big tournaments scheduled for Asia that were moved to the U.S., both of which he plans to play. Back when McIlroy learned that Erica was pregnant, he figured the timing was perfect.
“I was expecting a very quiet fall,” McIlroy said. “I thought, “Oh, October, November, December, three months at home watching my daughter grow up a little bit, that’ll be nice. And it’s sort of the case. Look, we’ve got U.S. Open, CJ [Cup], Zozo, Masters. That’s what I’m going to play in, so I’ve got a couple of three-week chunks there that I can spend time at home and enjoy it. Then post-Masters, I’ve got a couple months to really enjoy it.
“But yeah, I was expecting a quieter fall than I’m going to have.”
Now that’s a few big things to play for in addition to the excitement at home, including another FedEx Cup title and the potential to add to his major championship total of four.