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Rory McIlroy’s divorce U-turn from ‘broken’ marriage to ‘new beginning’ with Erica Stoll

Rory McIlroy and Erica Stoll
Rory McIlroy and Erica Stoll have called off their divorce - Getty Images/Maddie Meyer

The wedding ring was still missing but Rory McIlroy’s noticeably upbeat mood at Pinehurst was the telling clue that a cloud above his head had lifted.

His happy demeanour in US Open week was in stark contrast with those tense scenes at the US PGA Championship when it emerged divorce was pending. Nobody had expected to see the return of McIlroy in relaxed, gregarious form before the media just a month on. If anything, his mood might have darkened as speculation cranked up around his personal life, with TMZ, the US website, publishing pictures of him last week embracing CBS Sports reporter Amanda Balionis and citing “rumours” swirling “about the nature of their relationship”. Other outlets went further, claiming Balionis “is the talk of the links and has left many fans wondering just how close the pair have become”. In truth, the embrace was nothing out of the ordinary on the PGA Tour and the relationship between the pair was reported to be “strictly professional”, but the narrative was out of control.

Behind the scenes though, for McIlroy, the true story was leading to a happier conclusion, especially for his three-year-old daughter Poppy. Rather than moving out of the family home, the Northern Irishman was, in fact, patching up his marriage with Erica Stoll, his wife of seven years and mother of his only child.

Rory McIlroy and his wife Erica with their child, Poppy
McIlroy and his wife Erica have a child, Poppy - Getty Images/Jared C. Tilton

Appearing at his press conference on Tuesday, McIlroy was buoyant but gave nothing away, letting his career roll of honour do the talking instead. “I’m really proud of my body of work over the past 15 years and everything that I have achieved, whether it be season-long titles or individual tournaments or majors,” McIlroy said.

Only later that evening did it emerge the divorce petition he filed in a Florida court last month had been voluntarily dismissed. McIlroy’s lawyer, Thomas Sasser, wrote in his Notice of Voluntary Dismissal: “Petitioner Rory D McIlroy, by and through the undersigned counsel, hereby voluntarily dismisses, without prejudice, the above styled matter.”

Friends maintain McIlroy’s main priority is to keep the family together. “He doesn’t care about money,” said one. But whatever has gone on behind closed doors, the couple have concluded a costly divorce for one of the UK’s richest sportsmen – worth an estimated £312 million – will be avoided.

Whether the couple will now put on a united front in public remains to be seen, but McIlroy would tell a Guardian reporter over the phone that he was looking forward to a “new beginning” with Erica.

“Responding to each rumour is a fool’s game,” said McIlroy, battle-worn after other high-profile relationship breakdowns that included once being linked to Meghan Markle. “Erica and I have realised that our best future was as a family together.”

McIlroy arrived in North Carolina seeking to end a wait for a fifth major stretching back to August 2014. Coincidentally, it is also 10 years since his last major relationship, with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, ended abruptly when wedding invitations were sent out only to realise he “wasn’t ready for all that marriage entails”.

Rory McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki arm in arm at the 2013 Masters
The relationship between McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki ended in acrimony - AFP/Jim Watson

That split sparked a feud between sporting stars that still simmers to this day. However, after seven years of marriage to Stoll, McIlroy no longer believes the grass is greener. “Thankfully, we have resolved our differences and look forward to a new beginning,” he said.

In hindsight, there had been hints a rekindling of the relationship might be possible. Weeks after the divorce papers were filed, Stoll had been pictured with her wedding band still on show. She had also missed a 20-day deadline to respond to the golfer’s divorce petition in Palm Beach County at the start of June. But forms confirming a voluntary notice of dismissal for the divorce were only filed in Palm Beach, Florida, on Tuesday – the same day as McIlroy appeared before the press.

Friends of McIlroy are delighted the pair are giving it another go. He and Stoll had met at the 2012 Ryder Cup in Chicago where she was working for the PGA of America and famously arranged a police escort to the course after he misread his tee-time for the Sunday singles. He made it to the course with minutes to spare and went on to beat Keegan Bradley as Europe pulled off the “Miracle at Medinah”.

Rory McIlroy poses with Deputy Chief Patrick Rollins
McIlroy made his tee-time at Medinah thanks to Deputy Chief Patrick Rollins - Rory McIlroy

In Kentucky last month, with no Stoll at his side and no ring on his finger, McIlroy was a man under pressure. Divorce filings would reveal the marriage was “irretrievably broken” and that the two had a prenuptial agreement. The paperwork also asked for split custody of Poppy.

McIlroy declined to talk about the split at the time, saying he was just “ready to play this week”. Even after a potential relationship with Balionis was mooted, there was silence too. Various US outlets reported after the tournament with some authority that the relationship was strictly professional and Telegraph Sport has since spoken to a colleague of hers who is understandably upset that, through no fault of her own,  she was drawn into a make-believe scandal.

CBS Sports reporter Amanda Balionis
CBS Sports reporter Amanda Balionis has been dragged into the McIlroy story - Getty Images/David Cannon

But for McIlroy, there was no time to take stock amid upheavals in the day job too during most weeks in May. ‌McIlroy’s strength of feeling about the sports’ Civil War between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabia-funded LIV Golf was such that even amid tensions at home in South Florida he had been prepared to put up his hand and rejoin the players’ policy board.

However, a faction of other player directors, including Tiger Woods, Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth, expressed their unease at McIlroy being reappointed after he resigned late last year and the move was scuppered.

A sporting split with Woods, in particular, was almost as startling as that which he was enduring at home. The pair live nearby in Jupiter, South Florida, and are friends who play golf socially. But when the Northern Irishman recently agreed with Webb Simpson to replace the American as one of the player directors who will ultimately decide if there is a merger with the kingdom’s £60 billion Public Investment Fund, Woods joined the opposition.

Then, within 48 hours of his split with Stoll becoming public on the eve of the US PGA Championship, McIlroy was plunged even further into sporting diplomacy issues.

In another major blow, Jimmy Dunne, a key ally and investment banker who had orchestrated last year’s framework agreement between the warring parties, resigned from the Tour’s policy board.

I‌nstead of talking about his own heartache, McIlroy was instead speaking out about the “huge loss for the PGA Tour, if they are trying to get this deal done with the PIF and trying to unify the game”.

“I would say my confidence level on something getting done before last week was as low as it had been, but then with this news of Jimmy resigning and knowing the relationship he has with the other side, and how much warmth there is from the other side... well, it’s concerning,” he added.

In the four weeks since, McIlroy has found time to somehow resurrect his marriage while continuing to juggle tournament commitments with shop steward duties.

Last week, McIlroy was spinning more plates than ever, competing and contending at Muirfield Village on the same day as rushing off for a long-awaited meeting between the PGA Tour and PIF. A year and a day since the surprise announcement of their merger deal, they were finally in a room together. The talks went well and McIlroy’s mood took a U-turn following that three-hour meeting. “I think a lot of progress had sort of been made,” he said. “Definitely encouraged, yeah.”

Negotiations continue between the power brokers but at home McIlroy’s straight-talking diplomacy appears to have borne fruit. Having restored one status quo, McIlroy can only hope that his near decade-long barren run in the majors will also soon be fixed.