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Can Rory McIlroy cut through the noise to win the PGA Championship?

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The last time Rory McIlroy walked the 18th fairway of Valhalla Golf Club, it was a race against time in the final round of the 2014 PGA Championship.

After rallying from a 3-stroke deficit at the turn to chase down Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson, McIlroy hit a 9-iron out of a fairway bunker to 10 feet on the 17th hole and made birdie to take a 2-stroke lead.

With darkness closing in fast following a nearly two-hour torrential rain delay, Mickelson and Fowler agreed to allow McIlroy and his playing partner, Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger, to tee off before they reached their tee shots in the fairway, essentially playing the final hole as a foursome.

McIlroy nearly hit his tee shot on No. 18 into water down the right side of the fairway. Fowler and Mickelson stood to the side again, as McIlroy hit his approach shot into a greenside bunker and two-putted from 35 feet for par.

With a closing round of 3-under 68, McIlroy’s 72-hole scoring total of 16-under 268 was one better than Mickelson, who made a birdie on the last hole.

“I’d say I’m a pretty, you know, nonconfrontational person,” McIlroy said last week. “I’m not a huge fan of conflict, but when push comes to shove, I will. That was one of those times when I needed to sort of assert my will on a situation.

“I think if I wasn’t as pushy as I was, I would have had to sleep on that lead and on that tee shot overnight. I just didn’t want to do that. I think the guys up ahead were pretty unhappy with how it all unfolded. I got the result that I was looking for in the end and that’s all that matters.”

It was McIlroy’s third consecutive victory that season — and his second straight in a major championship after he was a wire-to-wire winner at The Open at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England, three weeks earlier.

Having also captured the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, McIlroy became the fourth-youngest golfer to win four majors at 25 years, 98 days. Only Young Tom Morris (21 years, 146 days), Tiger Woods (24 years, 206 days) and Jack Nicklaus (25 years, 81 days) were younger.

“I thought winning the Open a few weeks ago had sort of put me on a higher level in this game, but then to win a fourth major here, to be one behind Phil, one behind Seve [Ballesteros], level with Ernie [Els], level with Raymond Floyd, I mean, I never thought I’d get this far at 25 years of age,” McIlroy said at the time.

“It’s something that I’m just going to have to come to terms with in a way. I was happy being a two-time major champion coming into this year and all of a sudden I’m a four-time major champion.”

STUNNINGLY, AS MCILROY returns to Valhalla Golf Club this week for another PGA Championship, he’s still a four-time major championship winner. And in many ways, McIlroy is still racing against time — both on and off the course.

McIlroy will be playing in his 36th major championship this week since last winning at Valhalla Golf Club on Aug. 10, 2014. If McIlroy lifts a third Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday, it will have been 3,570 days since his last major victory, which would be the eighth-longest span between wins in major championship history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Now 35 years old, McIlroy insists time isn’t running out in his career.

“I look at my record in the majors over the last couple of years, and I’ve definitely started to perform much more consistently in them,” McIlroy said earlier this year. “Look, I’m under no illusion that the clock is ticking and it has been 10 years since I’ve won one of them. I’ve had chances and those just haven’t [gone] my way. I just need to keep putting myself in those positions and sooner or later it’s going to happen.”

It’s not like McIlroy hasn’t been contending in majors over the past nine-plus seasons. Since last winning at Valhalla, he has finished in the top 10 of a major 20 times, the most of any player during that span. Defending PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka is next, followed by Dustin Johnson (16) and Jordan Spieth (13).

Before tying for 22nd at the Masters in April, which was the 10th time he came up short in his quest to become the sixth player in the Masters era to complete the career Grand Slam by winning a green jacket, McIlroy had finished in the top 10 in seven of the past eight majors.

Since finishing first in the 2014 PGA Championship, McIlroy is a three-time FedEx Cup champion and has won 22 times on the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, the most of any player.

He’ll once again head into a major in great form, having won in each of his past two starts. McIlroy and his good friend Shane Lowry captured the Zurich Classic team event in New Orleans on April 28, then McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club for a record fourth time with a dominant 5-stroke victory Sunday.

“I’ve been sort of banging this drum for the last few years, but I’m a way better player now than I was back then,” McIlroy said. “I haven’t had the major record to back that up, but I’ve had the wins. I’ve done everything else there is to do in the game since 2014. The only thing I need to do is get another major. You know, a win like this going into the PGA Championship next week is a good way to prep for that.”

It’s the second straight time McIlroy will head to a PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club on a heater. In 2014, he was victorious in The Open and World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational before arriving in Louisville.

McIlroy said last week that he hadn’t played at Valhalla, not even in a practice round, since last winning there.

“I really got some confidence,” McIlroy said. “My golf swing feels a lot more comfortable than it has. So, going to a venue next week where I’ve won, it feels like the stars are lining [up] a little bit. But I’ve got a lot of golf to play and a lot of great players to try to beat next week. Going into the next major of the year feeling really good about myself.”

MCILROY’S RECENT SUCCESS has come at a time when he has once again been engulfed by headlines off the course.

On Nov. 14, McIlroy unexpectedly resigned from the PGA Tour’s policy board to focus on his golf game and interests off the course. His resignation came at a time when the PGA Tour was negotiating a potential deal with Strategic Sports Group (SSG) and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is financing the rival LIV Golf League.

Instead of quieting down, the noise surrounding McIlroy only seemed to get louder in recent weeks.

“Yeah, there is, but at the same time I think getting inside the ropes for that four or five hours or whatever it is a day, it’s a nice escape from everything else that’s going on in the world of golf,” McIlroy said. “I don’t mind it. I’ve always been able to compartmentalize pretty well. I seem to, for whatever reason, play very good golf whenever I have a lot of stuff going on.”

McIlroy’s life off the course is also undergoing big changes. On Monday, McIlroy filed for divorce from his wife, Erica, according to court records in family court in Palm Beach County, Florida. They have one daughter. The petition was filed confidentially, according to records.

In January, the PGA Tour secured a $1.5 billion investment from SSG, a consortium of American sports team owners and celebrities. But, as a framework agreement with the PIF expired and continued talks between the sides stalled, McIlroy wanted to become more involved in the negotiations. PGA Tour policy board player director Webb Simpson offered to step down — as long as McIlroy replaced him.

McIlroy said last week that other player directors balked at him returning to the policy board. The PGA Tour announced Wednesday that McIlroy will be involved in negotiations with the Saudis as a nonvoting member of a newly formed transaction committee.

“Look, we tried to get to a compromise where, you know, I stuck my hand up and said, ‘Look, I can be helpful if this is what Webb wants to do,'” McIlroy said. “It was really tricky to do that, so I’m involved in the transaction committee and that’s basically to try to get this deal done with PIF. I feel like I’ve got good relationships on both sides there, and hopefully I can bring something to the table and try to provide some insight and value and see if we can get this thing done.”

Woods, Spieth, Adam Scott, Patrick Cantlay and Peter Malnati are the other player directors on the policy board.

Tyler Dennis, the PGA Tour’s chief competitions officer, said McIlroy’s voice still matters — even if he’s not voting on the policy board.

“I would say that Rory’s always been an incredible thought leader and his perspective is highly valued among everyone at the PGA Tour, and what you’re seeing there is every player’s thinking about, ‘What is the best version of the PGA Tour?'” Dennis said. “Rory’s thoughts are, I know, going to be highly valued by everybody.”

MCILROY WAS ONE of the PGA Tour’s most vocal supporters — and one of LIV Golf’s biggest critics — during the first couple of years of its battle for the top golfers in the world. But McIlroy’s position on LIV Golf members being allowed to return to the PGA Tour without punishment, and whether they should be permitted to compete in the Ryder Cup, has softened dramatically.

McIlroy’s views on the sport’s future ecosystem — he foresees a time when the top players compete in tournaments around the world — differs from other player directors and some of the tour’s top stars.

“I think the PGA Tour has always been the best place to play and that’s where all the eyes are,” world No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler told ESPN. “We tried a little bit of the world tour stuff with tournaments in China, Korea and stuff like that, and they hadn’t really worked out.

“It’s just what you’re used to, and I think that’s where we always go back to — just being comfortable. Eight to 10 times [outside the U.S.] would be a lot just based on traveling and our bodies. I think that’s a big ask, especially with people having families. The guys that come over from Europe and they play over here, they usually come over in stretches.”

McIlroy referred to “old wounds and scar tissue” from the past when he was asked why others were uncomfortable with him returning to the policy board.

“If you’re just thinking big picture and what’s good for the game of golf and what’s good for the Tom Kims of the world in 10 or 15 years’ time and they’re still playing professional golf, you want to set it up in a way where those younger guys have all the same opportunities — if not more than the opportunities — that we had at that time,” McIlroy said. “So it’s not really about the here and now. It is a little bit, but it’s also about, ‘How does this thing look 10, 15, 20 years down the line?'”

Last month, the PGA Tour issued $930 million in initial player equity grants to 192 of its members. McIlroy will reportedly receive $50 million, but the equity grants are based on a $12 billion evaluation of PGA Tour Enterprises, the for-profit entity that was created with SSG.

For the PGA Tour to increase its revenues that dramatically, it’s going to have to make significant changes. McIlroy says he’s willing to help, even if he’s no longer on the policy board.

“I would say that golf and the PGA Tour [have] been so good to me over the years,” McIlroy said, “I just feel like it’s my obligation or duty to try to give back and try to set the next generation of players up like we were set up by the previous generation.

“So, Jack [Nicklaus], Arnie [Palmer], the guys that really helped build the PGA Tour and helped it thrive, and Tiger obviously, to get it to where it is today, I think there’s a responsibility with every generation to try to leave the Tour, leave the place that you’re playing in a bit of a better spot than it was before. That’s what it’s about.”

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