[NOTE: Originally posted on Facebook – June 20, 2011)
I made an observation on Facebook about Rory McIlroy’s record-setting U.S. Open victory that some took to be a bit harsh (“McIlroy held up – good on him. But let’s hold off on any coronation.”). I was not being disrespectful or “grumpy”; I’ll try to explain it here.
First off – I give all due props and a huge huzzah to him. Not only was this a dominating performance against a strong field, it was a redemption of sorts – most people with a passing knowledge of the current events of golf know that McIlroy not only has a ridiculous level of skill, but also has endured a couple of rather unfortunate (and very visible) blowups in major events; most recently in this year’s Masters, which was as painful a meltdown as I’ve seen on a golf course (this coming from a man who, in addition to witnessing any number of Shark gag jobs, recalls Arnie blowing a seven shot lead in the ’66 Open, watched Mark Calcheveccia nearly destroy his career at the ’91 Ryder Cup, and, oh yes, there was this guy from France named Van de Velde). I’m sure his followers held their collective breath over the weekend when he once again jumped out to a fast start, and were quite relieved when he kept it in high gear. With a huge lead on Sunday, his strategy changed slightly, but he continued to deliver quality golf shots (including a near-ace on number 10) and was able to coast to victory.
There are a lot of reasons why golf fans want to embrace McIlroy – aside from his breath-taking talent and nearly perfect swing (think Freddie Couples tempo with better technique), he is a very young-looking 21 year old who is unfailingly polite when interviewed (he seems equally accessible after both good and bad rounds, and his positive response to Bob Costas’s query about playing more in the US was, I’m sure, welcome news to PGA tour sponsors here), appears to be genuinely liked by his peers (I did like his comment about ensuring that plenty of Guiness would be available to celebrate his win), doesn’t act like a jackass when he suffers some misfortune on the golf course, and has not been declared the second coming of Gandhi by his father.. Some might think that these points might be pointed at or contrasted against a certain player who was absent from the Open field due to injury. They would be correct. And this is part of my concern.
For the past fifteen odd years, one name, for better or worse (I personally think it’s the latter, but I’m probably in the minority) has dominated the game of golf – yes, there would be the occasional burst from Phil or Ernie, or a rare supernova named Duval would spectacularly blaze across the horizon, but generally speaking, any time one Eldrick Woods decided to tee it up, he was the de facto defending champion and odd-on favorite to win whatever tournament was being played (well, except for maybe Ryder Cup matches and any event held at Riviera). We marveled at his skill and celebrated his fist-pumping tenacity, while either forgiving or ignoring on-course and post-round behavior that at times was juvenile, rude, or borderline unsportsmanlike.
And now a confluence of events has sidelined Mr. Woods, and there’s no guarantee that if and when he returns he can regain the skills (or develop new ones, such as, oh, occasionally hitting a fairway every now and then) that propelled him to the top. And in a time of economic difficulty, the absence of golf’s most bankable star has certainly had an adverse affect at minimum on televised ratings and other peripherals of the game.
So when a performance such as McIlroy’s occurs, and when NBC has sunk mucho dinerointo televising golf in general and USGA events in particular, there is an overwhelming desire by those who most stand to benefit from it (other than the golfer, of course) to coronate someone as the “next” whomever. The wide margin of victory allowed for some rather fanciful speculation by the broadcast commentators (including a phone call to Jack Nicklaus) concerning Rory’s long-term prospects, and already the pundits are debating the likelihood of him catching Woods or (gasp) Nicklaus in the major championship department, all of which seems to be a bit premature.
[On a somewhat more practical level, a friend of mine who has gone totally over the top about McIlroy’s win wondered aloud which endorsements Tiger lost as a result of his off-course issues; I mentioned Gatorade as one of them. He bet me $10 that within six months Rory will be the new golf spokesman for that particular product. I will be generous and buy him a drink when he pays me off. How does vodka and orange Gatorade taste, anyway?]
We seem to have forgotten the great Masters finish of one Charl Schwartzel, who birdied the final four holes on the final day to win that tournament (no one had ever done that before, either). Or a similarly dominating performance at last year’s British Open by Louis Oosthuizen (and if you want to really start a spirited debate with those dazzled by McIlroy’s win, have them check out this:http://espn.go.com/espn/grantland/story/_/id/6680477/relative-dominance). Or the brave win by Martin Kaymer at last year’s PGA at Whistling Straits (Dustin Johnson’s blunder/screwjob notwithstanding).
Rory McIlroy is a part of the next generation of potentially outstanding golfers who grew up watching (and were no doubt inspired by) the play of Tiger Woods (and maybe Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Darren Clarke . . .) and benefited from improved instruction (the likelihood of a Jim Furyk-styled swing ever emerging again seems pretty remote), broader playing opportunities, and, yes, improved technology. Aside from his undeniable youthful appeal, he has posted sick numbers on some very respectable tracks, appears to have an unlimited ceiling, and will certainly be a favorite at Royal St. George’s next month.
He also, at this point, has won the same number of major tournaments as Furyk, Mark Brooks, Fred Couples, Davis Love, Orville Moody, Jerry Barber, the Hebert brothers (individually), Sean McKeil, and those mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago (on the other hand, he’s won more than Collin Montgomery or Sergio Garcia, so there’s that . . .).
Golf is a peculiar and often cruel game (just ask Greg Norman). I applaud young McIlroy for his great victory; a win at the British would certainly cement his reputation and maybe even make people forget about TW for awhile. But it’s useful to remember that when Tiger made his initial mark at Augusta, it was more than two years later that he broke through on his next major, the 1999 PGA at Medinah. My biggest hope for Rory is that he keeps a level head, maintains his desire, and enjoys whatever success he attains in the game on his own terms, not on the expectations of others. In this age of instant fame, hype, and gratification, it might be too much to ask.