KAPALUA, Hawaii — With a blue sky above and the blue Pacific on the horizon, Rory McIlroy was walking off the putting green at Kapalua when he smiled and said to a trio of writers: "You don't need to win a tournament to be here. I do."
McIlroy is the most accomplished of the nine newcomers to the Sentry Tournament of Champions, not only because of his four major championships but the six previous times he was eligible for the winners-only start to the year and chose not to come.
Like most European players, McIlroy would finish the European Tour in late November in Dubai, and then start up the new season a few months later in Abu Dhabi. It didn't make sense to interrupt a short winter's nap with a trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
It's different now.
"My life is here," he said. "I have an American wife. I live in America. Honestly, I enjoy it here more. The way of life is easier. The weather. The convenience. You go to Europe and get paid a nice amount of money to start the year. I've done that for a decade. I want to switch it up. I've done it for 11 years, so I may as well do something a little different."
McIlroy turns 30 in May. In some respects, he is starting a second chapter in his career.
He is not abandoning the European Tour, even if he likely won't play in Europe until July, and then not nearly as much as he once did. But his priorities have changed.
The golf landscape has changed.
McIlroy doesn't want to show up at the end of the West Coast Swing feeling as though he already is lagging behind in the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour. He is at Kapalua this week, and it would not be surprising to see him again within the next month, possibly at Torrey Pines.
Beyond the points — toward either the FedEx Cup or the world ranking — it's the competition.
"I want to play against the best players in the world," he said. "I get a buzz from that. I'd much rather go down the stretch against Justin Thomas or Dustin Johnson. I'm not putting anyone down in Europe, but the depths of the field and everything is just that bit better over here. It's what everyone is striving for. It's why Francesco Molinari is here this week. It's where it's heading."
McIlroy is honest to a fault. He is comfortable enough to say what everyone knows but few are willing to say, either out of loyalty or support or simply to avoid stirring the pot. He is European, born and raised in Northern Ireland, groomed on a European Tour schedule that covers five continents.
That was then.
The PGA Tour long has been the strongest circuit in golf. The disparity between the two tours — brought on by television, sponsorship and prize money — is greater than ever. The U.S. tour is a destination.
"The ultimate goal is here," McIlroy said. "The European Tour is a stepping stone. That's the truth."
The European Tour promotes eight "Rolex Series" events that offer $7 million purses, except for the $8 million prize at the final event in Dubai. The PGA Tour has 21 tournaments with at least $7 million in prize money, three regular events that top $9 million.
As for world ranking points, the PGA Tour averaged 50.4 points for the winner of its regular events (excluding majors and World Golf Championships). Europe had only three events that offered more than 50 points to the winner. Two of the Rolex Series events, in Turkey and South Africa, had weaker fields last year against two PGA Tour stops in Las Vegas and the Mayakoba beach resort in Mexico.
"It's so one-sided," McIlroy said. "That's the thing. Look, you can talk all you want about these bigger events in Europe, but you can go to America and play for more money and more ranking points."
McIlroy sounded indifferent to keeping a European card this year, and some of that was sorted out when European Tour chief Keith Pelley dropped by for lunch last month in Northern Ireland. McIlroy only has to play four regular European Tour events to keep his card, but if it doesn't include a home tournament (Irish Open), he has to add two others. To be determined is whether the British Open at Portrush counts as a home tournament.
Otherwise, he said the conversation covered where the game is headed, where the European Tour is headed, and who is running the show.
"I think Keith is very much on board with what the players want, but it's not Keith's decision," McIlroy said. "He has to go back to the European Tour board. And the board and the players aren't aligned in what they want to have happen."
Meanwhile, McIlroy plans to spent more time at home — his residence in South Florida, his tour in America. He has played at least five regular European Tour events every year dating to his pro debut in September 2007. That most likely will not be the case this year.
"It's not as though I'm just starting out and jumping ship," he said. "I've done my time. I've done everything I feel like I need to do to say, 'OK, I'm going to make my own decisions and do what I want.'"