Rory McIlroy joins Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as a sporting great - now he just has to stay there
They hid it well but golf was getting jumpy about its loss of box office buck with the slide of Tiger Woods.
Too many good players and too few billboard stars was the curse settling on a sport that needs household names to launch itself beyond the Arcadian heartland.
Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Woods and now Rory McIlroy have been the post-Corinthian proselytizers for a game with declining participation and an image problem in this age of instant gratification. McIlroy’s talent, which has fizzed on the launchpad, is now the full starburst as that global constituency – the floating television viewer – cranes its neck to see what the fuss is about.
On both sides of the Atlantic – courtesy of his back-to-back Open Championship and US PGA victories – the non-afficionado sees a 25-year from Belfast replanted in West Palm Beach, Florida, recovering from a break-up with a leading tennis player by farming three trophies in a row and perhaps consigning the Woods era to sepia – in Valhalla, named after the resting place for Nordic warriors.
Irritation at the constant Woods-McIlroy comparisons is understandable. But it comes with the territory for a sport that needs hooks beyond birdies and bogies. The Woods-Nicklaus notional struggle has given way to the Woods-McIlroy Roman buggy race, which looks like ending with Woods writhing on the fairway, clutching parts of his body made sore by his violently assertive swing.
Nobody is saying McIlroy is a more gifted, prolific or historically important figure than Woods. Nor should this summer’s poster boy be judged solely against the backdrop of ‘Tiger’s’ fading reign-by-fear. The excitability, though, is not mere single-summer giddiness. The events of the last 22 days suggest that McIlroy has found a way to organise and impose his talent on his contemporaries, which was always the hope. "I just immersed myself in my game,” he says. "I get up in the morning, I go to the golf course, I go to the gym. "It obviously works pretty well, so I'm going to keep doing it. It's my life at the minute.”
The undulations of love, equipment changes, management upheavals and walk-offs might have sent him into the valley from which few return: that of squandered promise, or oblivion-by-sponsor-overload and distraction. Despite his 2011 US Open and 2012 US PGA wins, there was always a suspicion that he was a hot-and-cold prodigy who needed everything in his favour to summon the will to drive for the line.
Those doubts seem petty ragged now. McIlroy’s first riposte was to dominate the US Open after his implosion at The Masters, where he shot 80 after taking a four-shot lead into the final round: a collapse that seemed to speak to us keyboard tragedians of a fatal flaw. The great lesson of that comeback was that messing up can be framed as, well, messing up, and not some immolation of the spirit. But from there McIlroy seemed to enter the rough waters of early meteoric fame, where judgment is often skewed and the athlete becomes a corporation on a road trip rather than just a sportsman who is spectacularly good at one thing.
With Nicklaus buddying up to him, and the title of No 1 British sporting achievement of 2014 already tucked in the bag, the stage is nicely garlanded for McIlroy and for golf. This week the ball he threw into the crowd in victory at Royal Liverpool fetched $52,038 in a memorabilia auction. His US PGA win was his fourth major title and the first back-to-back grab since Padraig Harrington in 2008.
The march to history is anything but guaranteed. as Woods has demonstrated by stalling on 14 majors, four behind Nicklaus. But while Woods has splintered his own body snapping into drives McIlroy’s gym time has so far only enhanced his game, adding muscle and mechanical stability to a well-proportioned and fluidly-moving frame. Physical breakdown is less likely to halt him than the modern megastar’s seduction of wealth and commercial opportunity.
If his break-up with Caroline Wozniacki really is responsible for this redoubling of effort then you wonder whether future romantic attachments might also take him off the path of monkish dedication. None of us can know what it is like to be told you are the No 1 in your sport, the saviour of your industry at 25, with everyone jabbering about the countdown clock on Nicklaus’ 18 majors, and people who know little about golf tuning in expecting another execution.
But there are worse burdens. The gift granted to McIlroy and first displayed on the courses of Ireland and the North is his to either wring dry or just draw on from time to time, when everything feels right. With three of the four major titles already in his possession, The Masters will regain the frisson it lost with Woods’ absence through back surgery this year. McIlroy winning at Augusta is now one of sport’s great anointments-in-waiting.
In the excitement of Sunday night, ESPN’s golf man wrote that McIlroy “has single-handedly freed the sport from inertia.” And: “McIlroy isn't just collecting trophies; he's making golf relevant again. This was a PGA Championship -- and a winner -- that should make you a believer in the future of the game.”
No harm in any of this. McIlroy now slips into the company of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and the other serving potentates of world sport. Nicklaus and Woods preceded him. Now he just has to stay there.