PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It was 2009 and Rory McIlroy, then 20, was making his first appearance at the Players Championship, the tournament considered nearly as prestigious as a major golf championship.
McIlroy, a floppy-haired wunderkind at the time, recalled this week that his commitment to the 2009 event was at best scattered. He attended a prize fight in Las Vegas the weekend beforehand. The weekend of the tournament — after McIlroy was purged from the competition for shooting seven-over par — was misspent, as McIlroy said: “Getting kicked out of bars for having a fake ID.”
On Tuesday, with a smile and an Irishman’s developed sense of understatement, McIlroy, this year’s defending Players champion, added: “So I’ve come a long way.”
The retort applies to his golf results, but more authoritatively describes a newfound, off-course leadership role that McIlroy has assumed among his generally conservative, cautious peers. In recent months, McIlroy has stood apart by taking bold, principled stands within a community of athletes who are a loosely aligned group of circumspect self-employed entrepreneurs.
In December, McIlroy shunned a lucrative tournament in Saudi Arabia that attracted other top golfers, citing Saudi human rights violations and adding: “There’s a morality to it.” Last month, McIlroy soundly rejected the advances of the Premier Golf League, a moneyed, upstart rival to the PGA Tour that other top pros had been careful not to overtly rebuff. McIlroy, the game’s top-ranked player, said he was defending every pro golfer’s right to autonomy.
With a blunt, “I’m out,” McIlroy definitively stalled the Premier Golf League’s budding momentum. He did not want to take the new league’s money, because, he said: “They can tell you what to do. If don’t take the money, they can’t.”
Earlier this week, Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, called McIlroy’s declaration, “a moment of leadership.”
Now weeks from his 31st birthday, McIlroy has become a notably frank, widely accessible and forthright voice on most every subject as it pertains to golf and the industry enveloping it. He does not expect that to change.
“At this point, I think I have somewhat of a responsibility — not just for myself but for the other players,” McIlroy said. “I have been outspoken about a number of issues in golf and I’m happy about that. I’ve been around the top of the game for a long time now and I want to be a voice out there that can at last put forth some good commentary on things.”
His colleagues are listening.
“Rory respects us on and off the golf course, that’s the great thing,” said Webb Simpson, ranked seventh in the world. “I think he’s great for our game; I think he’s very mature. He’s liked by all of his peers.”
Francesco Molinari, the 2018 British Open champion, said McIlroy’s comments on the Premier Golf League helped shape his opinion on the subject.
“I agreed with what Rory said — we’re lucky to play some amazing schedules, so I don’t see why we’re really messing with it too much,” Molinari said.
McIlroy has also garnered the praise of former players. David Duval, a Golf Channel analyst, recalled when he became golf’s top-ranked player in the late 1990s and felt that status had come with the added challenge of serving as the primary voice of his sport.
“Was I most comfortable with it?” Duval said. “No, certainly not like Rory. But I spoke my mind. The fact that Rory will voice his opinion and take that role is imperative to this game.”
Brandel Chamblee, Duval’s Golf Channel colleague and another former PGA Tour member, commended McIlroy’s ethical stances.
“I applaud the man,” Chamblee said. “What he does on the golf course is one thing, but what he did in the media center, I mean, that’s rarer than the athletic skill that he has.”
In addition to his more prominent leadership role, McIlroy is also playing his best golf since 2015, which is the last time he held the No. 1 ranking. In each of his last six events, McIlroy has finished in the top five. The near misses this year have only slightly vexed McIlroy, who has won four major championships.
“If I keep putting myself in position and if I can do a few different things in my golf game just a little bit better,” he said. “Those thirds and fifths will hopefully turn into wins.”
For McIlroy, growth as a golfer, in most every way on and off the course, remains the primary goal. This week, for example, he was philosophical about how, as a young man, he despised Pete Dye-designed courses like the T.P.C. Sawgrass layout that hosts the Players Championship annually. McIlroy has since won several championships on Dye courses.
“They’re like beer when you’re younger,” McIlroy said of the Dye layouts. “You sort of don’t like it but then you think it’s cool to drink and then you sort of acquire a taste for it.”