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Ricciardo’s Montreal upgrade hinged on 'self-therapy' — not Jacques Villeneuve

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Ricciardo’s Montreal upgrade hinged on 'self-therapy' — not Jacques Villeneuve

There was a point towards the end of last year when there was a genuine feeling that Daniel Ricciardo was lining up to take Sergio Pérez’s Formula One seat at Red Bull for 2025.

Ricciardo made clear upon his mid-season return to the grid with AlphaTauri (now RB) that getting back in the Red Bull, the same seat he vacated back in 2018, was his ultimate target. As Pérez struggled through the second half of the season, suggestions of that happening only grew.

But, Ricciardo did very little to press his case in the early part of 2024. He frequently trailing teammate Yuki Tsunoda and, besides his run to P4 in the Miami sprint qualifying and race, had not delivered a points finish ahead of Canada and sat 14th in the driver standings. Meanwhile, Pérez performed well enough to secure a contract extension through 2026, ending Ricciardo’s hopes of moving up anytime in the near future.

Off the back of Pérez’s confirmation, Ricciardo acknowledged he had to “hold myself probably accountable for not doing anything too spectacular” this season. “When you’re trying to fight for a top seat, you need to be doing some pretty awesome things,” he said.

By the Canadian Grand Prix, Ricciardo’s tough start to the season had changed his aim from fighting for a top seat to fighting for his current seat.

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No one went further in questioning Ricciardo’s future than Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 F1 world champion who was part of Sky Sports’ broadcast team for his home race in Montreal.


Jacques Villeneuve leveled harsh criticism at Daniel Ricciardo in Montreal. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“Why is he still here?” Villeneuve said of Ricciardo, asking why he continued to struggle with his cars and declaring that “his image has kept him in F1 more than his actual results.” A brutal takedown, one that quickly went viral given how rare it is for a pundit to be so outspoken on an English-language F1 broadcast.

Villeneuve was harsh — perhaps too harsh — but few would dispute the element of truth in what he said. Ricciardo has been clear throughout this year he knows he’s not been doing a good enough job, and has plenty more performance to find.

Just 24 hours later, he found it. In tricky, windy conditions, Ricciardo not only made it through to Q3 for just the second time this season, but he stuck his RB car fifth on the grid, within two-tenths of pole position. Perfect timing, particularly off the back of Tsunoda’s confirmation at RB for 2025 only 90 minutes earlier.

It meant Ricciardo entered the media pen after qualifying with some of his old swagger and sparkle. He knew the questions that were about to come, that Villeneuve’s name would come up. Ricciardo hadn’t fully listened to what had been said about him, he said, only that he “heard he’s been talking s—.”

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“But he always does,” Ricciardo continued. “I think he’s hit his head a few too many times, I don’t know if he plays ice hockey or something. But yeah. Anyway. I won’t give him the time of day.” Then came a “but…” and a lean in close to the microphones: “All those people can suck it! I want to say more, but it’s alright. We’ll leave him behind.”

It was only qualifying, after all. We’d seen this kind of flash from Ricciardo in Miami in the sprint, only for it to disappear when it mattered in the grand prix sessions. This was nevertheless a perfectly timed clapback to Villeneuve’s criticism.

But to directly link the two would do Ricciardo a disservice. He revealed that after Monaco, he made a concerted effort to try to understand why things weren’t working, going beyond his on-track performance and data such as braking points or corner speeds. It required calling on not only the team’s management and engineers, but also his inner-circle off the track, and asking them to be open books with their feedback.

MONTREAL, QUEBEC - JUNE 09: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Visa Cash App RB VCARB 01 on track during the F1 Grand Prix of Canada at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 09, 2024 in Montreal, Quebec. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

Ricciardo qualified P5 and finished P8 over a rainy weekend in Montreal. (Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

“It was like, OK, what are maybe some other things that are affecting my performances?” Ricciardo said. “Am I coming into a race weekend not feeling energized or not feeling this or that?

“I think I just had a little bit of good self-therapy after Monaco, and just sat back and had a look at maybe the things I’m doing wrong away from the track. Or giving too much of my time to people and by the time I get to race day or something, I’m a little bit more flat.

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“Deep down, I know what I can do, and it’s just making sure I’m in this spot to be able to do it more often.”

And making sure that those flashes of pace turn into something valuable when it matters on Sunday. Ricciardo’s Canadian Grand Prix was far from straightforward, with a creeping car on the start line — which Ricciardo suspected was due to a clutch issue — triggering a jump start and a five-second penalty. He managed to survive the chaos and benefit from some late incidents to grab four points for P8, nearly doubling his total for the season. That alone in the high-pressure conditions felt like a success to Ricciardo.

“All in all, (I’m) happy,” he said. “These races, it’s hard to be perfect. I made mistakes, obviously we were just trying to survive at times. So (I’m) just happy we got there in the end.”

MONTREAL, QUEBEC - JUNE 09: 8th placed Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Visa Cash App RB celebrates with fans after the F1 Grand Prix of Canada at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 09, 2024 in Montreal, Quebec. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

Canada marked the first points-scoring grand prix for Ricciardo. (Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

The greater takeaway for Ricciardo from the Montreal weekend was that it went well from the moment he turned his first laps in FP1 right to the race. For the first time this season, every single session felt positive.

“It’s nice just to be competitive from Friday through to Sunday,” Ricciardo said. “I’m happy. (I’ve) just got to keep it rolling.”

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Ricciardo has time on his side when it comes to proving to Red Bull what he can do and securing an extension with RB. If it wants to make a change, then reserve driver Liam Lawson is ready to step up, as the young Kiwi proved through his five-race stand-in when Ricciardo was injured last year. But there’s no reason for the team to rush into making that call yet.

Ricciardo will hope Montreal serves as a turning point in his season, a breakthrough after the earlier lifts to better understand where he was going wrong. Importantly, he also wants to ensure he keeps the feeling he brought to last weekend.

“That little energy, that little bit of a chip on my shoulder I brought into the weekend, I’ve got to make sure that stays there, and just keep that level of intensity,” Ricciardo said.

“Sometimes being a little bit… I don’t know if I need to be a bit angry or just get my testosterone up. But I think it helps me.”

(Lead photo of Daniel Ricciardo: Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

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Football’s silence over Argentina’s racist chanting is deafening and damning

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Football’s silence over Argentina’s racist chanting is deafening and damning

The telling bit in the video of Enzo Fernandez and other Argentinian players singing a racist song about France following their victory in the Copa America final is the voice you can hear just at the end.

“Corta (el) vivo,” someone says — “stop the live stream.”

They know. They know what they’re saying. They know that what they’re saying is profoundly offensive, and they know what will happen if the outside world hears it.

This isn’t one of those things that can be equivocated. It’s not something that can be denied. The words are clear, and we know the words because it’s a song that has been around for a couple of years.

The words to the chant were: “They play for France, but their parents are from Angola. Their mother is from Cameroon, while their father is from Nigeria. But their passport says French.”

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The song in question came from a group of Argentina fans before the 2022 World Cup final, which was flagged at the time by French anti-racist protestors as an “expression of a far-right ideology”.

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French Federation filing complaint over ‘unacceptable racist’ chants by Argentina players

Frankly it’s bad enough that Argentina, presumably insulated from a PR perspective by their victory at the World Cup, didn’t seek to distance themselves more from the song, but the fact the players seem to have incorporated it into their celebrations is so much worse. If nothing else, it speaks to an unpleasant collective mentality and pervading culture that a group of players, at a moment of triumph, would choose this song as part of their celebrations.

It’s also worth noting, without wishing to detract from the blatant racism, the transphobia that is at play here too. The full lyrics of the song make reference to French players being “cometravas, like Mbappe.” “Cometravas” is a slang term that essentially translates as “someone who has sex with transgender people”.

Football in general has made positive steps to make the game more welcoming for LGBTQ+ people. Players who actively choose not to participate in anti-homophobia campaigns are thankfully few and far between, and those that do are often punished — like Monaco midfielder Mohamed Camara who, after covering up an anti-homophobia message on his shirt last season, was suspended for four games.

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Things like this song, however, do not help and in fact actively harm the effort to make football a more inclusive place.

But if the song itself and the gleeful willingness of the players involved to sing it was not depressing enough, the aftermath has been almost as bad.

Fernandez himself issued an apology of sorts, claiming that he got “caught up in the euphoria of our Copa America celebrations” and the song did not “reflect my character or beliefs”. He also said, rather laughably, that “I stand against discrimination in all forms”. Let’s just say that when he is inevitably forced to participate in some sort of anti-racism campaign in the weeks or months to come, his words will ring hollow.

Chelsea themselves reacted in fairly responsible fashion, putting out a statement that set out their own position and values, saying they will use this as “an opportunity to educate” and that they have started an internal disciplinary procedure.

It will be interesting to see what comes of that process, given that if Fernandez was a fan and was caught singing that song in the stands at Stamford Bridge, he would be looking at the ugly end of a fairly lengthy stadium ban.

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Beyond that though, things have been very quiet.

Wesley Fofana, the French Chelsea defender, called it “uninhibited racism”. David Datro Fofana, the club’s Ivory Coast striker, put a statement on Instagram saying that “racism in all its forms should be condemned in the strongest possible terms” and that the fight against racism “needs to be taken seriously by everyone involved in the sport”.


David Datro Fofana has also condemned the incident (Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

It’s the last bit that feels the most pertinent. Because aside from those two responses, plus a picture posted by Nicolas Jackson of Fernandez hugging a black child, the meaning of which is open to interpretation, there’s not been much else.

Only black players have acknowledged the incident publicly so far. No white players have condemned the song. Perhaps some of Fofana’s white team-mates have offered private support, but as things stand there has been nothing beyond that.

As will be depressingly familiar, it is the black players that have been left to do the emotional work, to carry the mental baggage of having to deal with a racist incident. It enforces the idea that racism is a problem only for black people, when it’s a blight that shames us all. It isolates the black players, suggesting that it’s not something that anyone else has to worry about.

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Imagine the power that would come from a white player standing up, unprompted, and condemning the song. It would provide a valuable symbol, but it would be more than just a surface-level thing. It would have genuine import.

The clubs of the other players in the video have, at the time of writing, decided not to comment. It is, in fairness, a little tricky to definitively identify exactly who is singing in the video, but everyone seems to be trying their best to ignore the issue entirely.

Perhaps we could give them the benefit of the doubt and say that, in time, they will speak to their Argentinian players and remind them of their responsibilities — not as footballers or representatives of a club, but as human beings. But at the moment it would seem that they are just hoping the whole thing goes away.

Even if it is tough to identify the individuals doing the singing, anyone who sat in silence while such a racist song was being sung probably could do with at least a talking-to. Surely the least we can expect from the clubs is for them to acknowledge the incident, that they will investigate and if it is found that any of their players were involved, they would face the appropriate punishment.

Chelsea are the only club to have said anything so far, not that we should necessarily be handing out extra credit for that: after all, they couldn’t possibly have avoided it.

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Elsewhere though, crickets. For all the glossy campaigns and well-intentioned initiatives and solemnly shot ‘No to racism’ UEFA videos, when so much of the game is silent at moments like this, the idea that football is serious about combating racism is very hard to take seriously.

(Header photo: Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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From Rory's hometown, the angst of McIlroy

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From Rory's hometown, the angst of McIlroy

Follow live coverage of day one at The Open 2024 from Royal Troon today

HOLYWOOD, Northern Ireland — About 3,000 miles from here, Rory McIlroy walked along Manhattan’s West Side five weeks ago; shoulders pushed up, head slung down, earbuds in. He strolled the High Line, a repurposed freight rail running from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street. The 1.5-mile footpath towers 30 feet over 11th Avenue, above the fray, but through the noise of America’s busiest city.

That’s where McIlroy went to get away from it all.

He needed to process the latest close call in a career coming to be defined by them. This one? Especially cruel. Pinehurst. Three bogeys in the final four holes. Those missed putts. Two feet and 11 inches on the 16th. Three feet and nine inches on the 18th. A solo runner-up finish at the U.S. Open. Again.

McIlroy wanted the blur of a big city, where everything is fast, faceless. It’s what he prefers nowadays. He walked alone, hidden under the brim of a baseball cap, then dipped into Milos, a world-class Mediterranean restaurant in Hudson Yards. He elbowed up at a bar seat, checked his phone and opened a text message from a close friend.

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That message? It asked if he’d just been walking the High Line. Apparently, McIlroy had been spotted. Word got around.

“It’s hard to get any sort of privacy these days,” he says. “But it’s nice to try to blend in as much as possible.”

Ages ago, McIlroy found solace along the narrow streets of Holywood, this small town where the butcher knows the baker, and the bartender knows the banker, and the bookmakers know the bookkeepers. They all live here, tucked between Belfast and Bangor, along the shoreline of Belfast Lough, the inlet connecting this section of Northern Ireland to the Irish Sea. A little more than 10,000 people. Solidly middle-class. Wealth around the edges. A mix of Protestant and Catholic. They’re abundantly proud to have raised generations of kids well isolated from the religious tensions that long defined the region.

As one local puts it: “A lovely little town. Everybody has grown up with everybody.”

Holywood was the early proxy used to explain Rory to the world upon his arrival in 2008 as a potential superstar. Sportswriters and broadcasters traveled here like pilgrims. More and more from his breakout U.S. Open win in 2011 to his thunderclap in 2014 — winning his third and fourth majors in succession at age 25.

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The visitors drove rental cars down High Street. They squeezed into parking spaces and popped into one business after another. Holywood’s main strip is dotted by coffee shops, cafes and retail shops. You can’t read a story from back then without a mention of Skinners Bakery, where owner Valerie Baker designed biscuits and buns with Young Rory’s face. In 2014, after McIlroy’s win at the PGA Championship, she told the Belfast Telegraph: “It’s become something of a tradition now. This is the fourth time we’ve baked our special Rory biscuits. They always sell out.”

Next door to Skinners is Orrs Butchers. That’s where writers found Stephen Moore. He’d say how much the town was buzzing. How Rory put little Holywood on the map. How he was going to win the next major, and then the next one after that.

Inevitably, the visitors would head up the hill, deeper into town, to Holywood Golf Club. Where Rory learned the game. Where local liquor laws were winked at as family and friends watched final rounds of major tournaments long after last call. Where television cameras broadcast them cheering their boy, Rory. He would win, return to town with a trophy, and everyone would be together again.

Today, things are different, but Holywood remains.


It’s a Friday afternoon and Paul the barman is looking for the key again.

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Two Americans are coming off the 18th hole and want their turn. Rory’s Corner, a mini custom-built McIlroy museum in the middle of Holywood GC’s clubhouse, is open to the public. The walls are covered. Pictures of a 15-year-old with big freckles and bigger hair. Framed newspapers of long ago wins. Plaques. Memorabilia.

So for the umpteenth time today, the trophy case is opened, and replicas of the Claret Jug and Wanamaker Trophy are handed over. Big smiles. Pictures snapped.

Later, two Aussies will come in to do the same. Paul will fetch the keys, take them to the trophy case, pop it open again.

Shortly after that, near sunset, a sightseeing bus from a docked cruise ship will climb the hills of Holywood, turn down Demesne Road, and pull onto Nun’s Walk, the tiny road leading up to the clubhouse. The Home of Rory McIlroy is a stop on the tour.

“All day, every day, seven days a week,” says Stephen Tullin, president of Holywood Golf Club.

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You can make a reasonable case no club is so associated with a player it produced as Holywood is with Rory. Arnold Palmer and Latrobe Country Club? Jack Nicklaus and Scioto? It’s a short list.

“I don’t know what course Tiger Woods was involved with as a lad,” says Tony Denvir, a Holywood GC member. “But everyone knows Rory McIlroy was, and is, a member of Holywood Golf Club.”

The reason, it seems, is the fairy tale, one told so many times. Born in 1989 to Gerry and Rosie McIlroy, Rory McIlroy was immediately a prodigy. His parents worked multiple jobs, trading night and day shifts, assuring the boy every opportunity. Gerry, a fine player in Belfast’s amateur golf leagues, taught his son the game and let him loose at Holywood. He was so good, so soon, the club made him a member at age 7. Rory left high school at 16 to focus on a game that grew larger than life. The result was a young lad coming from a working man’s club to conquer the world.

“Nobody was ready for what happened,” says Barry Dobbin.

Now 78, Dobbin still seems to be wrapping his head around it all. A lifetime ago, he owned a timber-frame housing kit company and employed Gerry as an insulation installer. He, Gerry, and Gerry’s father, Jimmy (Rory’s grandfather), played golf together. Dobbin drove Gerry and Rosie to their 1988 wedding, then to the reception at Pips International, the best-known nightclub in Belfast.

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He remembers Rory as a baby.

And he remembers that baby suddenly becoming the biggest story in the golfing world.

“It all happened so quickly,” Dobbin says. “And suddenly we were this magic place.”

The waves of tourists that come through today want exactly that. A piece of magic. Americans, Canadians, Swiss, French, Japanese. They fork over greens fees to play what amounts to a simple, short, 120-year-old parkland course. They ask to hear all the stories. They take pictures of the sign in front of Rory’s reserved parking spot.

On this day, a nondescript sedan is parked there.

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“Oh, that’s Paul’s,” Denvir says.


The sound on the 18th green at Pinehurst last month was guttural. A gasping, shrieking, sighing, moaning anguish. The thousands of fans surrounding the final hole of the 2024 U.S. Open couldn’t believe McIlroy missed that putt. At the same time, they absolutely could believe it. They’ve seen it before. That’s how a major tournament winless streak goes from 36 to 37.

In Holywood? All was quiet that night.

“Back in the day, Rory in contention at a U.S. Open, this place would’ve been jam-packed for that,” Denvir says. “Bar would’ve been full. Overflow seating in the other room. Would’ve been fantastic craic.”

That was back when the bar stayed open late and the cameras came out. BBC, Sky Sports. Maybe ESPN. Photographers snapping away.

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“That’s died off a wee bit,” Denvir says.

Instead, everyone watched the misadventures of Pinehurst from home.

Blank faces in front of the flickering screens.

“Pinehurst was … ” Denvir says, lifting his hands and dropping them. “You really could tell that the wee lad just wanted to stand there and cry. He was obviously heartbroken. It was so hard to watch.”

Sitting on a deck perched over Holywood’s 18th green, Denvir looks over at Tullin, who has known McIlroy’s family for 50-some-odd years. Tullin remembers watching Rory play junior competitions when the bag was taller than the boy, when he’d step to the tee and the whispers would begin. “Who’s this now? Oh, that’s Rory McIlroy.”

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“We were heartbroken as well, yeah?” Tullin says, looking back at Denvir.

“Absolutely. Just stunned,” Denvir says, pausing, thinking, “Ten years now, since he’s won a major? Ten. Just incredible.”

“It is incredible.”

“2014, yeah? That’s just…“

“Crazy, isn’t it?”

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These are the conversations that have replaced the parties at Holywood Golf Club. The lover’s lament, so to speak. It’s impossible to change the topic when there’s only one topic. So pints are poured and Rory is discussed. The keening of near-misses or summoning of old times. Eventually, inevitably, his face pops up on the TV screen and everyone stops.

The whole town is subscribed.


“Hi, I’m wondering if Stephen Moore is here?”

“Ah, s—,” the old man says, eyes pressed closed, hands atop the cold metal of a butcher’s display, “what’ve I done now?”

Meet the most popular man in Holywood. Moore was born here in 1965, took a job at Orrs at age 15, bought the shop years later, continued working, sold it a few years ago, and now shows up each Saturday, pulling on an apron, mainly so he can still see everyone, and so they can see him. Moore can not go more than two minutes without being interru…

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“Hi, Tommy!” he hollers.
“Stephen!”
“You good?”
“I’m fine.”
“Good man.”

Moore was interviewed by the likes of ESPN and the Washington Post back in 2011, when Rory was on the rocket and the Open Championship was on its way to Royal Portrush, only 60 miles from Holywood.

“It was a phenomenon,” he remembers.

Moore went to school with Brian McIlroy, the youngest of Rory’s uncles, and worked at Orrs alongside Eva McIlroy, Rory’s grandmother. She drove a Volkswagen Beetle, but couldn’t park it. So she’d arrive at work, leave the VW in the middle of the street, and tell Young Stephen to go park it. Later, Moore’s sister married Colm McIlroy, another of Rory’s uncles.

Today, all the McIlroys still live in Holywood. Colm runs a pressure-washing business and plays golf out of HGC. Gerry and Rosie split time between Northern Ireland and the United States. When they’re in town, Gerry can be found each morning on the 4-mile stretch of beach from Seahill to Holywood. He likes to walk alone, Moore says.

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“Down to earth, solid people,” he adds, waving to a passerby.

“Heyyy, Sam.”
“Hello, Stephen!”
“You get that thing sorted?”
“I did, I did.”
“Good, good. Cheers.”

Moore remembers both childhood Rory bouncing down High Street as a kid and, only a few years later, a freshly famous Rory drawing crowds and newspaper photographers when stopping for coffee. He couldn’t imagine such attention.

“Hi, Stephen!” a passing woman says.
“Hi, Annie! Go sit in your garden and enjoy this weather, would ya!”

Moore watched the U.S. Open at his house. A few mates. A few beers. They thought it was over as Rory teed off on 15. The boys damn near began celebrating.

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“Two silly putts,” he says. “Everyone was heartbroken.”

It’s odd, like storms in one sea changing the currents upon another shore. Even though he’s not there — and hasn’t been here in at least a year or two — as Rory goes, so goes the Holywood. There’s the buildup to each major, that this will be the one. Then the letdown. McIlroy has 11 top-five finishes in the 37 majors since his last win, including three second-place finishes in the last three years. It didn’t seem like anything could be more wrenching than the near-miss at St. Andrews in 2022, but Pinehurst was somehow worse.

So here sits Holywood, waiting for time to change.

“I think it’d just be a relief, to tell you the truth — to just see ‘em get it off his back,” Moore says. “I think he’s just trying too hard sometimes. Who can blame ’em? He’s won loads of championships, but this major thing is just following him around.”


At The Maypole, a pub in Holywood’s town center, you’ll find things can begin to feel odd after 10 or 15 minutes. Then it hits you — the bar is full, but also quiet. Everyone is talking, but not shouting. No music is playing. No TV is on. A sign by the door reads: “In the interest of good conversation and serious drinking, please refrain from using mobile phones.”

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This place is a free competition of ideas, and when it comes to Rory, everyone has an opinion.

One local philosopher, eyebrows raised toward the ceiling, slows his brogue to say McIlroy needs to stop speaking to the media and only worry about playing golf.

Others have their own varying thoughts, namely, the man is worth multiple hundreds of millions, so, yeah, it’s tough to feel too bad. “Poor Rory?” one said. “I don’t think so.”

But even those cynics want to see McIlroy win again, if only for a change of conversation.

Plenty in town are suspicious of an out-of-towner. Antennae are up, assuming questions about golf will lead to questions about Rory’s personal life, one month after he withdrew his petition to divorce wife Erica Stoll after a seven-year marriage. Seeing a notebook, plenty in Holywood kindly scooted away.

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The instinct, of course, is to protect.

He is theirs, not ours.


Rory McIlroy’s major tournament winless streak extended to 37 at the 2024 U.S. Open.  (Luke Walker / Getty Images)

Walking off the 18th green at Royal Troon on Monday, 21-year-old Tom McKibbin folded his arms, thinking about home. He grew up in Newtownabbey, across the Belfast Lough, about 12 miles from Holywood. Growing up, he spent his days playing on Rory’s old course, training in facilities installed by Rory and, after developing into an elite talent, answering constant questions about being The Next Rory.

McKibbin turned professional in April 2021 at age 18, just as Rory did. This year, he won the European Open in Germany — his first tournament championship on the DP World Tour. Cameras returned to Holywood to capture members’ reactions.

This week, McKibbin is appearing in his first Open Championship. He says he feels comfortable. A top-40 finish in last month’s U.S. Open — his first career major — was reassuring. Plus, he’s getting older and is out on his own more. While McKibbin lives at home with his parents in the summer, he now spends part of the calendar in Dubai and is eying an eventual move to the States — “hopefully someday soon.”

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On a recent return trip home, he got a glimpse of how such success changes things.

“Suddenly a lot more people know you at home,” McKibbin says. “I guess that’s sort of what you sign up for.”

McKibbin is a product of what McIlroy means to Holywood. There’s been charitable work — both seen and unseen. There’s been loads of money made off his draw to the town. According to those at the club, he helped keep the place afloat during COVID-19 and single-handedly put €800,000 into clubhouse renovations. He pumped financing into an expanded junior program, thinking that, if every kid in the area wants to be Rory McIlroy, they should be able to practice where he played.

Part of the clubhouse renovations Rory paid for included the installation of a modern gym, one for him to use when in town, whenever he visits the massive property he owns. Though it’s been awhile, he’s been known to show up at the club in shorts and T-shirt, wearing earbuds, to get in a workout. “He’s totally normal when he’s here,” Tullin says. “Like he just wants to be normal.”

But that’s the hard part. The longer he’s gone, the harder it is to be normal.

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“When you go home seldomly, it’s almost like you’re more of a novelty,” McIlroy said last week. “It’s sort of counterintuitive.”

Perhaps there needs to be a reason for a proper reunion.

And perhaps this could be it.

Stephen Moore says he played a round at Holywood with Colm McIlroy the day after the U.S. Open. The two smacked shots and recounted that impossible ending at Pinehurst. According to Stephen, Colm decided to fire off a text message to Rory. Something like, “Well, nephew, get ‘em the next time.”

The phone dinged back. Rory replied that the loss only made him more determined to win at Troon.

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Wouldn’t that be something? After all this time? As of now, the plan is for the bar at Holywood Golf Club to stay open on Sunday. Maybe this is the one.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Brian Lawless /PA Images, Luke Walker, Saype / Belfast Photo Festival)

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How Angel City became 'the most valuable women’s sports team in the world'

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How Angel City became 'the most valuable women’s sports team in the world'

On Wednesday, Angel City FC became “the most valuable women’s sports team in the world” after the club entered into a definitive agreement for Willow Bay and Bob Iger to become the new controlling owners.

The team’s board of directors unanimously approved the sale via a vote, but it still must be approved by the NWSL, the sport’s top women’s league in the United States. The sale is expected to close in the next 30 to 60 days.

Bay, dean of the Los Angeles-based USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, have acquired the controlling stake of the club at a total valuation of $250million (£192m), and have committed to an additional $50m in investment. Bay will serve as the club’s primary representative on the NWSL board of governors and also serve on and control Angel City’s board.

“We are so excited to be here,” Bay told The Athletic before the announcement. “I keep thinking how historic this moment is — historic in sports and in women’s sports. What we’re seeing now is breathtaking, and it’s only the beginning of the ascent, and that’s for women’s sports but particularly for this team.”

The dollar figures attached to the sale will make history.

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According to Angel City’s official press release, the $250million enterprise valuation makes it “the most valuable women’s sports team in the world”. While there’s no official list, a $250m valuation outstrips the most valuable team in women’s basketball’s WNBA (the Las Vegas Aces at $140m, per Sportico, earlier this year) and the Women’s Super League in England (Chelsea has explored the sale of a minority stake in its women’s team with a total valuation around $200m).

Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman of the United States, recently visited Angel City’s practice facility to highlight the efforts of Kamala Harris, the U.S. vice president, to promote gender equality. He called the sale a “great statement” for the league.

“The fact that people like Bob Iger and Willow Bay are potentially investing in that team is a great statement about the health of the league and the prospects going forward, especially with the media,” Emhoff told The Athletic on Tuesday during the Olympics send-off game for the U.S. women’s national team.

Originally founded by actor Natalie Portman and entrepreneurs Kara Nortman and Julie Uhrman, the expansion team was the unexpected result of connections between Portman, Nortman and the USWNT players’ association via Time’s Up. The three brought on businessman Alexis Ohanian as the club’s largest shareholder and controlling owner before the team’s launch in 2020. Despite that title, Ohanian did not actually control the Angel City board, writing on social media that it was “one of many hard lessons (he) learned as a first-time sports team owner”.

The club also added dozens of smaller investors, among them former USWNT players, including Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Lauren Holiday, as well as celebrities and other famous athletes, such as Billie Jean King, Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba.

Angel City has largely struggled on the field since starting play in 2022 — though they did make the 2023 NWSL playoffs before being knocked out in the first round — but the team has been a runaway success from a business perspective.

Wednesday’s $250million valuation is a massive step up from last year’s Sportico figures, which Angel City led at $180m, and the Los Angeles club laps the rest of the NWSL in revenue. It makes more than $30m a year, about double that of the next highest, fellow Californians San Diego Wave.

This year, Angel City’s four primary owners voted to hire New York investment bank Moelis & Company to find a new controlling owner, with that decision becoming public in March after reports of squabbling among the board. Four months later, the board collectively announced the club’s sale to Bay and Iger, but individual founding owners were not made available to the media.

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“Willow and Bob bring unparalleled operational experience, expertise and passion to Angel City and the NWSL,” the club statement begins.

“They are the right partners to lead us into this new era — they are committed to strengthening Angel City’s position as a preeminent organization and brand in women’s sports and to championing the team’s broader mission, including the advancement of equity for athletes and women-founded businesses.

“With their leadership, we will continue to harness the industry’s momentum and build on Angel City’s strong foundation of fan and community support.”

Portman, Uhrman, Ohanian and another early investor and board member, Gillian Berry, will continue their roles on the board once the sale is completed. But Bay will soon be at the head of the table, along with Iger, hoping to advance the existing Angel City mission. Bay believes that the work ahead must be done as part of a local community, even as Angel City’s reach extends globally.

“We’re committed to doing whatever it requires — leveraging expertise, capital and our networks to continue building and elevating this franchise on and off the pitch,” Bay said on Tuesday

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Natalie Portman, Julie Uhrman and Kara Nortman in 2023 (Allison Zaucha/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

When Angel City unveiled itself as a new NWSL expansion team four years ago, no one could have predicted that it would be up for a $250million sale, even with all the excitement of Hollywood connections, USWNT star power, and the anticipation for the return of women’s professional soccer to Los Angeles for the first time since 2010.

The team brought in forward Christen Press as their first signing, then pulled out all the stops for their home opener in May 2022, with a sold-out crowd of 22,000 watching them eke out a win over North Carolina Courage.

“What you see here (with Angel City) is a combination of so many people getting together and going, ‘No. It can be different. It can be this, don’t do that’. We can make this whatever we want,” Wambach said before that 2-1 victory.

That’s largely been the story of Angel City’s approach: leverage the knowledge and experiences of Wambach, Hamm and the rest across various former leagues — WUSA, WPS, even the early days of the NWSL — then combine it with the ambition of new investors who are bound by the historical fear of a league folding too soon. For the most part, it has worked — though not perfectly.

Chief among the criticisms of Angel City has been that the club has been more interested in building a brand than an actual soccer team. While most of the team’s early language has been scrubbed from its website, the business-centric theme is still present in the page description for its online store: “Angel City is not just another football club. We’re a brand on a mission to make a difference in this world. We’re born of the streets of Los Angeles and stand side-by-side with our community.”

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Angel City FC

Angel City’s Claire Emslie, left, celebrates her goal against NJ/NY Gotham in 2022 (Ira L Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

Since March, however, the team has been followed by reports of infighting on its board as it decided to find a new controlling owner.

The Los Angeles Times reported Ohanian was unhappy over the team’s spending. This week, The Wall Street Journal went in-depth on power struggles within Angel City’s leadership, primarily between Ohanian and Uhrman. According to that report, internal documents show team officials complained about Uhrman’s “financial and personnel management”, with Ohanian cited as having concerns over her spending, the hiring of her sister as a team executive, and her temperament.

The Wall Street Journal also reported there is disagreement over Uhrman continuing as the team’s president. That decision would fall to Bay as the new controlling owner, with Uhrman herself mentioning that in the Journal’s story. However, Wednesday’s confirmation that Uhrman (and Ohanian) will remain on the board following the sale’s closure shows she will still have some role with the team moving forward.

Still, there was always going to be incredible interest in the club’s controlling stake thanks to the growth of Angel City, the NWSL and women’s sports as a whole.

Angel City had the NWSL’s highest attendance in 2022, was barely off San Diego Wave’s pace the following year, and leads the league again in 2024. According to the club, they also top the league in season ticket membership and sponsorship revenue.

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“We’re going to be the first women’s team to have a billion-dollar valuation in five years,” Uhrman told The Athletic last year. “There’s no better investment today than women’s sports.”

On the league front, when Angel City was still building its ownership group in 2019, team valuations had not yet exploded. In December of that year, OL Groupe bought out Seattle Reign for just $3.5million. Last month, when a group led by Seattle Sounders of MLS and investment firm Carlyle finalized its purchase of the Reign from OL Groupe, it was for $58m. Just before the Angel City news broke in March about the search for a new controlling owner, San Diego Wave sold for $120m.

Valuations can’t be viewed in a vacuum, however, with media rights, facilities, attendance and other metrics weighing in. The NWSL has enjoyed good news on those fronts, too, whether it’s the purpose-built stadium in Kansas City, last year’s media-rights deals, or increases in attendance and engagement figures in 2024.

Women’s sports, in general, are having an extended moment.

Global financial company Deloitte had to revise its initial predictions on women’s sports revenue, predicting that 2024 would be the year that it would surpass $1 billion. North America is expected to account for 52 percent of that revenue, with soccer’s revenue forecast figure ($555m) the highest among all sports.

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It is not surprising that there were interested bidders, though a representative of Bay’s declined to comment on other bids or the bidding process itself. Marc Lasry, former owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and CEO of Avenue Capital Group, as well as Avram Glazer, part owner of the Premier League’s Manchester United and the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, were linked as potential bidders, with sources confirming to The Athletic this month that Glazer had pursued Angel City’s controlling interest.

The Bay-Iger bid emerged as the favorite this month, with the deal already close to completion.

It is easy to assume that Angel City — a product of the connections formed between women — would want a woman as its controlling owner, they could do one step better: someone who had been a fan since day one.


“The team has been on our radar since its inception,” Bay said, calling herself and Iger, her husband, members of the Angel City community — but she also knew two of the founding investors, Uhrman and Nortman, so she took particular interest in their new project. Bay and Iger have attended games, but Bay has gone further and included Angel City in her role as a professor at the University of Southern California.

“I bring students as part of my sports class to visit Angel City, to learn about the trajectory of the team and its development,” she said, adding she has also hosted the team’s co-founders on campus. “It’s important to offer a platform to this team, part of this community, and these women who have helped create it.”

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Bay, who has a lengthy media and journalism resume that spans Huffington Post, Good Morning America, Moneyline, the Today Show and NBA Inside Stuff, loves a narrative.

“This is a great business story, a great sports story, a great community story, and certainly a great story about driving equity with a purpose-driven brand,” she said. “So for all those reasons, I’ve followed this team since the beginning.”

Asked about changing her mindset from fan to owner, Bay didn’t want to get into too many specifics about the club’s new day-to-day. To her, there is time ahead to dig into priorities, strategic planning and the decisions that have to be made. The sale is a month or two from being finalized, and she’s still embracing the moment to celebrate. Bay is in big-picture mode, not the nitty-gritty logistics.

Bob Iger and Willow Bay

Bob Iger and Willow Bay at the Academy Awards in March (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

That said, the purchase of Angel City has repercussions beyond just the club. Bay will be one of 15 (eventually 16, once the next expansion team is chosen) governors who can help shape the league’s future.

“There have never been limits for this team,” Bay said. “That also applies to the NWSL, with this new infusion of energy, capital resources, and incredible people joining this ownership group. There are certainly no limits to what we can expect from these athletes.”

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One of those athletes, Press, addressed the player side of the sale, acknowledging that the team does have “a lot of things that they need to get right”. The deal — plus that extra $50million of investment — means a lot of money is about to flow in.

“It allows the club to continue to professionalize. Angel City recognizes that they have a lot of room to grow on that end,” Press told The Athletic this month.

Angel City's Christen Press

Angel City’s Christen Press in 2022 (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

While Bay promised the specifics of priorities would come later, she did say that facilities are absolutely on the list, “particularly with player development and player support”.

That’s not new information. The Bay-Iger group’s pitch deck, acquired by news website Semafor, shows that the group wants to “improve team performance, player support and retention”, which does include a training facility — but Bay and Iger also offer their expertise on media, content creation, and managing brands.

A pitch deck is one thing, reality can be another. Bay, unsurprisingly, said the first couple of months once the sale closes will be filled with a lot of listening.

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“It’s premature to even speculate about where we land first and what we do first, but we’re committed to listening, understanding where the opportunities are, then making decisions about how to prioritize resources,” she said. Player support and development across the board, including players, technical staff and front office staff, are areas they have already circled.

As of Wednesday, they’re one step closer to the real work ahead.

(Top photo: Angel City in recent action against visitors San Diego Wave; Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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