Restless McIlroy ready to relocate to the States

 

Akron

The British weather's got a lot to answer for. Rory McIlroy revealed here yesterday he is about to resume membership of the PGA Tour and will move to America. It seems Europe is about to lose its shining star and Belfast its favourite son.

This is a stunning change of heart, which was greeted with euphoria on one side of the pond and something of despair on the other. When asked the reasons for the U-turn, McIlroy blamed the rain and wind at last month's Open. It was a funny line but McIlroy acknowledged it was much more complex than that. He cited his belief that "I play my best golf over here" and he also confessed that the recent break-up with his childhood sweetheart, Holly Sweeney, had "a little bit" to do with it. "Definitely," he added.

Sources within Team Rory also suggested he was struggling with all the attention in his homeland and being "Northern Ireland's superstar". The 22-year-old will still appear on his home continent, but the move will be a huge blow for the European Tour, if only because of the marketing implications of not owning McIlroy "exclusively". He tore up his US card after just 12 months last year, speaking of his dislike of the end-of-season FedEx Series, missing his hometown of Holywood as well as some of his favourite events in Europe.

The PGA Tour has made strenuous efforts to persuade golf's young phenomenon back into its glitzy fold and was thrilled when McIlroy approached it yesterday to ask about the possibility of a return. In truth, it was akin to David Beckham asking Preston if they would like him back. With the PGA Tour's TV contract up next year this was just the news its commissioner wanted to hear. With the deal running into hundreds of millions, the reaction was understandable. "We would be ecstatic if it happens," said Andy Pazder, the PGA Tour's chief of operations. "Rory is a huge asset and an immense talent."

McIlroy said: "I spoke to them today and I'm leaning towards taking my card up again, definitely. I feel as if I play my best golf over here. I'm very comfortable in this country. I'm going to look at a few houses down in Florida after the USPGA [next week]. I'm definitely looking towards coming back and playing a full schedule over here."

What qualifies as a full schedule? Well, members are required to play a minimum of 15 events and must compete in the FedEx Cup, a series which features four tournaments in five weeks. "It's only a week after the USPGA and it's hard to keep going for that length of time," he said. McIlroy would also be obliged to play in the Players, aka "the fifth major" on a course for which he doesn't care. All these downsides fall under the title of "things I would have to accept". Sources suggested McIlroy would probably end up playing in the region of 17 events in the States, restricting his European Tour appearances to six which, with the majors and the WGC events, would take him up to the bare minimum of 13. "It shouldn't be a problem to play on both Tours," he said. McIlroy has until the end of November to decide, although his mood screams at it being a formality.

"My game really suits playing courses here and I'm very comfortable here," said McIlroy. "Most of my favourite events seem to be in America." McIlroy will stay with his friend and countryman, Graeme McDowell, in Lake Nona, Orlando in two weeks' time while he hunts for a new property. Will his new abode have the female touch? Speculation will inevitably fall on his burgeoning relationship with Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish tennis player. He referred to "the person I'm holding hands with", and has spoken about the difficulty in maintaining a private life. His peers will confirm it is easier to achieve in a gated community.

The revelation overshadowed the build-up to the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, which tees off here today, and most notably the reappearance of Tiger Woods after a 12-week absence through injury. Woods, now ranked 28th in the world, will partner the Open champion Darren Clarke in the first two rounds and, despite McIlroy's ever growing fame over here, he will command the brunt of the focus. McIlroy said how enthralled he was by how Woods fares.

"It's very compelling," said the US Open champion. "Everyone wants to know how he's going to do, how he's going to play, how is his knee. It'll be interesting.... The last tournament he played [the Players in May] he had to pull out after nine holes. Nobody expects him to come out and play well. I'm sure he expects to compete but, given the length of lay-off and considering he's only been able to hit full shots for a few weeks, it would be an unbelievable effort to contend. So I just think getting through 72 holes and maybe finishing top 20 would be a really good effort."

Like McIlroy guessed, Woods has other ideas. The 35-year-old yesterday played his first 18 holes in front of a crowd since the Masters in April and looked sharp in practice. There was plenty of interest in his caddie, Bryon Bell, just as there will be when the $8.5m spectacular proper starts. Bell is a novice bagman and is better known as Tiger's childhood friend, named by at least three of Woods' mistresses as being "the travel agent" in their secret trysts.

Now he has another duty and the critics will pounce on any mistakes by Bell. It places a little more pressure on Woods' shoulders, as if he needs it. He is winless in 21 months, but Woods' first 10 years at Firestone brought seven victories and three other top-four finishes. Then he finished 78th out of an 80-man field. From being 99-under for his first 40 rounds here, suddenly he was 18-over for his last four rounds. The transformation was outrageous and in many experts' minds perfectly encapsulates the downfall. Thus Woods is long odds-on (8-15) to finish outside the top 10.

McIlroy is rightly favourite in a field featuring the world's top 50, including England's No 1 and No 2, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. McIlroy loves the course, loves the country and they love him. Believe it, this will be a lasting affair.

Selected tee times

(US unless stated, all times BST)

First tee

14:40 R Goosen (SA), S Garcia (Sp)

14:50 R Karlsson (Swe), J Furyk

18:20 M Kaymer (Ger), B Watson

18:30 N Watney, S Stricker

18:40 D Clarke (NI), T Woods

18:50 M Kuchar, R Ishikawa (Japan)

19:00 A Scott (Aus), D Johnson

10th tee

14:20 L Donald (Eng), C Schwartzel (SA)

14:30 G McDowell (NI), L Westwood (Eng)

14:50 R McIlroy (NI), H Mahan

15:00 P Mickelson, J Day (Aus)

18:40 I Poulter (Eng), KJ Choi (Kor)

18:50 P Casey (Eng), L Glover

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