NEW ORLEANS — Rory McIlroy is on the TPC Louisiana 19th green stage with a beer in one hand and a microphone in the other. He’s got Mardi Gras beads around his neck standing next to one of his best friends, Shane Lowry, and the drunken New Orleans crowd keeps chanting.

“Rory! Rory! Rory!”

“Do you know any songs from the 80s?” the bandleader asks.

And then Journey starts playing.

The four-time major champ belted out “Don’t Stop Believing” early Sunday evening, tossing his head back to put his chest into the notes. Lowry just laughed and drank his beer watching his buddy make a fool of himself. As he walked off moments later, Lowry answered why he didn’t join — “I would have sung much better.”

McIlroy just won a golf tournament. And he needed to win a golf tournament. But far, far more than he needed anything on a scorecard, he needed this week. McIlroy needed to have fun.

This all began with a “really drunken lunch” after their Ryder Cup win last fall. McIlroy asked Lowry if they could team up for the Zurich Classic — the PGA Tour’s only team event. Lowry has played this event before but, fearful of rejection, never asked McIlroy to team up. McIlroy sent Lowry a Christmastime text confirming. He was coming to New Orleans.

Fast forward to Saturday night, and just off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter at a classic white tablecloth Creole joint called Arnaud’s, McIlroy and Lowry received a standing ovation from the other diners. This isn’t even some casual weekend in Louisiana. It’s Jazz Fest. It’s NFL Draft week. The Pelicans are in the playoffs. Yet the people were so psyched to have the No. 2 player in the world they filled TPC Louisiana with the largest galleries anyone can recall and applauded them at restaurants. One TV reporter joked the last athlete to receive that was Reggie Bush nearly two decades ago.

“It was weird for me,” Lowry said. “That stuff doesn’t happen to me.”

“It doesn’t happen to me, either!” McIlroy joked.

“He’s getting old,” Lowry said with a cheeky grin. “But he can still move the needle a little bit.  Rory brings a crowd, and people love him.”

A little context. McIlroy isn’t having a very good season. It became a running gag last week that Scottie Scheffler’s caddie, Ted Scott, is outearning McIlroy in 2024. And McIlroy has been having a stressful few years. He was the face of the PGA Tour in its war with LIV and the most public-facing policy board member. Then, he got blindsided by the PGA Tour entering into a framework agreement with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (LIV’s owners), calling himself a “sacrificial lamb” as they sent him to speak to the media the next day.

He then reportedly lost a power battle over the future of the tour to Patrick Cantlay and decided to leave the board, with Sports Illustrated reporting Cantlay and others like Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth focused more on catering to the tour’s elites. McIlroy then changed his tune and campaigned for unification with LIV. He rubbed people the wrong way, criticizing Spieth publicly for saying the PGA Tour didn’t “need” the Saudis. He consistently made comments about the desire for money ruining the sport. He got in an awkward incident at the Players Championship with playing partners Spieth and Viktor Hovland.

Oh, and the golf has suffered. It’s all relative. He’s still top 30 nearly every week, but has just one PGA Tour finish better than 19th all season. When he finished T22 at the Masters two weeks ago, he got questions about whether he needed to blow up his swing and do a full reset.

Then, he went to New Orleans.

McIlroy was not locked in this week, at least not for most of the week. This week was about having fun with his old buddy Shane. They didn’t even practice when they got in Tuesday because the course was too busy, so they messed around at the chipping green instead. During the Wednesday Pro-Am, they hardly even played every other shot. They seemed to hit when they felt like it while walking and talking the rest. They crushed chargrilled oysters from Drago’s on the 10th hole and teased each other.

Who knows how worried they even were as they entered the seventh hole Sunday five back of the leaders. Yes, they’re competitors and want to win, but they were just going with the flow.

Then, McIlroy got hot. Playing alternate shot, they birdied four of the next five holes to get one back. McIlroy dropped a saucy little club twirl that he hasn’t shown in years on a perfect iron shot on 14. And right around that time, he clearly started to want it a bit more. When he put his drive on 16 into a bunker, he bent over and held his head down for a full minute in frustration.

But no worries. Lowry hit a perfect wedge from the bunker to the center of the green, and McIlroy hit a wide-breaking putt to take a share of the lead.

On the par-3 17th, Lowry’s tee shot flew into the crowd and he later missed a tough par putt. He was visibly disappointed with himself, but McIlroy speedily chased him off the green to say, “Hey, Shane. That was a good putt.”

“Rory is there backing me up this week,” Lowry said, “and he was a great teammate, and he made me believe in myself. It was good to have him there to do that.”

They then birdied 18 to send it to a playoff, and thanks to a missed putt by Martin Trainer in the playoff, McIlroy won his 25th PGA Tour tournament and Lowry earned himself a spot in the remaining PGA Tour signature events. Teamwork.

Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry chased down Chad Ramey and Martin Trainer on Sunday in the Zurich Classic. (Stephen Lew / USA Today)

Yeah, maybe McIlroy was the key to the win this week, but there’s a chance Lowry was the key to a much-needed week for McIlroy. Because he admitted this week was about getting away from the stress.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The reason that Shane and I both started to play golf is because we thought it was fun at some stage in our life.  I think sort of reinjecting a little bit of that fun back into it in a week like this week, it can always help.”

And as the event finished, tournament organizers could be seen celebrating the coup of one of the game’s biggest stars winning and possibly coming back next year to defend his title. This isn’t exactly one of the tour’s bigger events. They’d kill for McIlroy in the field again. So he was asked, “Has anyone started trying to sell you on returning?”

“I don’t think they need to try,” McIlroy said. “I think we’re coming back.”

(Top photo: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)


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