Rory McIlroy's Divorce Shouldn't Be Everyone's Business, But Golf Is Just Different

News of the four-time major champ's divorce rippled through the sport on Tuesday, and Pat Forde says the nature of golf and its athletes turns us into nosy neighbors.
Rory McIlroy filed for divorce Monday from his wife of seven years.
Rory McIlroy filed for divorce Monday from his wife of seven years. / Clare Grant/Courier Journal / USA TODAY

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There have been three dominant topics here this week in the lead-up to the PGA Championship: the tortured negotiation process between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf,  diapers and divorce.

The first topic is slow-moving and boring as hell. The second two—emanating from the recent birth of Scottie Scheffler’s first child and the fresh split between Rory McIlroy and his wife—are none of our business. Except this is golf, and in no sport does the general public get up into the business of the athletes as much as this one.

When it comes to pro golfers, we’re all nosy neighbors. It’s a strangely strong dynamic.

In most sports, the common knowledge about relationship status tends to be directly proportional to the fame of an athlete’s significant other. We know Travis Kelce’s girlfriend because she’s 100 times more famous than he is. We knew about Tom Brady’s ex-wife because she was an international supermodel. Peyton Manning’s wife? Relatively anonymous.

We seem to have way too much information about golfers’ home lives.

You could say we’re snooping on them, but in truth we are invited to snoop. Encouraged, even. It’s now a made-for-TV cliche to have the winner’s family members waiting to offer hugs and kisses by the 18th green after the final Sunday putt has dropped. Being marketed as a family man can warm a sponsor’s heart. It can be good for business.

Spouses are simply part of the show in a variety of ways. The Ryder Cup is a veritable wives-and-girlfriends showcase. Social media is rife with influencer-spouses. Brooks Koepka’s wife even wound up being a freshly minted Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.

There are reasons why this happens more in golf than other sports. A lot of them. In a sport without teammates—no matter what LIV tries to sell us—spouses and kids and parents become the team. In a sport without uniforms and helmets, personal relationships with the human beings swinging the clubs are easier to imagine. In a sport where the fans are separated from the athletes by a mere rope, the connections seem more real.

The golfers tend to be conventionally sized humans. There are no 7-footers and no 300-pounders. (John Daly looks like he’s slimmed down a bit recently.)

This is also a sport that average schmucks can play, for life. The gap between the weekend hack and the world’s best is arguably wider than in any other sport, but there is an identifying element with the athletes that is a little harder to come by elsewhere.

(Maybe that’s why golf fans come out to the course dressed like they’re playing instead of spectating. Fans might wear jerseys to football games, but they don’t wear shoulder pads.)

So there is an assumed—aspirational?—rapport that perhaps invites intrusion. As if Justin Thomas might actually choose you as a partner in the club member-member, then ask for relationship advice afterward over a drink in the clubhouse.

Thus when the current top two players in the sport experienced significant life events this month, the snooping reflex spiked. Scheffler announced Monday that his wife had given birth to a boy named Bennett, and suddenly every golfer dad in the PGA field was being asked to give him parenting advice.

“Get some sleep,” offered Tiger Woods.

“To each their own,” said Jordan Spieth. “Everyone likes to parent different ways. I think it's probably the number one piece of advice you guys would say is don't tell someone else how to parent because everyone does it differently.”

Both Woods and Spieth name-dropped Scheffler’s wife (Meredith) in their answers, which adds to the familiarity of it all. As for McIlroy’s divorce, which he filed for in Florida Monday—retaining the same lawyer Woods used when going through his extremely high-profile split from Elin Nordegren—there was much less public commentary. 

But there was plenty of private chatter. The Valhalla Golf Club media tent rippled with the news when it broke on TMZ Tuesday. In other sports, divorces might not move the needle much; in golf, this unexpected development buried the needle.

Celebrity divorces are red meat for a renowned gossip site like TMZ, but this was breaking news in a lot of other locales as well. From ESPN to Sports Illustrated to every other major sports website, McIlroy’s divorce was breaking news.

McIlroy’s agent issued a statement confirming that he had filed for divorce from Erica Stoll, his wife of seven years and the mother of their child, Poppy. And that was all Team Rory had to say about that.

His nine-minute press conference Wednesday was the shortest appearance by any player this week in the interview tent (though, in fairness, he could have skipped the interview entirely). It was prefaced by a statement from a PGA media relations representative that McIlroy didn’t want to talk about his private life.

Closest we got was a reporter who asked, “How are you doing?”

McIlroy’s pithy response: “I’m ready to play this week.”

Coming off a victory at Quail Hollow on Sunday and returning to the site of his last major win, the 2014 PGA here, McIlroy was guaranteed to be a center of media attention this week. That makes the timing of his divorce filing on Monday a bit curious.

But there simply may be no good time to file for divorce in the golf world. It’s going to make headlines, probably more than it would in almost any other sport. Golfers live with the public nosing into their personal lives as part of the cost of doing lucrative business.

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Pat Forde


Pat Forde covers college sports, the Olympics and horse racing for Sports Illustrated. Pat wrote two books and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his work at SI, Pat is also the co-host of the College Football Enquirer podcast. He is an analyst for the Big Ten Network and contributes to national radio shows. In a career spanning more than three decades, Pat has worked at Yahoo! Sports, ESPN and the Louisville Courier-Journal.