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Wednesday 18 September 2019

The annals of the four masters: George Best, Alex Higgins, Van Morrison and Rory McIlroy

Northern geniuses are not like other geniuses. George Best, Alex Higgins, Van Morrison and now Rory McIlroy are on the extremist wing of the genius game, somehow more crazily gifted than your average mainstream genius. Which somehow makes life even harder for McIlroy, says our reporter

Rory McIlroy (L) with Van Morrison at the Slieve Donard Hotel. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy (L) with Van Morrison at the Slieve Donard Hotel. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
George Best
Rory McIlroy with Erica Stoll, now his wife, in 2016
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

There is a photograph (left) of Rory McIlroy with Van Morrison, the two of them leaning against a fireplace in the Slieve Donard Hotel chatting amiably and looking about as relaxed as men can be when they're having their picture taken 'chatting amiably and looking relaxed'.

They did not just happen to run into one another in the Slieve Donard in the vicinity of the fireplace. There was a dinner for Rory's charity - the Rory Foundation - being held in conjunction with the 2015 Irish Open at Royal County Down. It was a night when the greats in various fields would be giving something back.

And out of this gathering came the photograph which will probably be viewed in 100 years' time as a kind of a marvellous curiosity; the way we would look at some picture from early in the last century of a musical giant such as Stravinsky with the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey.

You wouldn't normally put these guys together in your head, but incongruous though their meeting might be, there is something that unites them, too. They have been to the top of mountain, as it were; they have had that weird sensation of being among the best in the world at what they do; maybe among the best there's ever been.

George Best
George Best

So while the music man might not connect completely with sport, and vice versa, in some other way these guys know one another; they know the score. But looking at that photograph now is a different experience to the one they will be having in 100 years' time, in at least one respect - we still don't know how it has all turned out for Rory.

Though he has achieved much, still he is expected to achieve a lot more, and by that we don't mean he is expected to win a load of regular tournaments on the PGA Tour - we mean the majors.

Van the Man, by contrast, is on the other side of all that. He has won the proverbial 18 majors, he has reached that high and holy place in which we find those exceptional souls who have been given a prodigious talent and who have delivered on it, who have 'left nothing out there', as they say.

Indeed, in 100 years' time, there will probably be a clearer realisation than there is now that Morrison, all things considered, is perhaps the greatest artist of any kind to come from this island.

But Rory... will he be seen as the greatest of all the sportsmen? Certainly, there's a chance of that, but there is also the chance that he may not even be seen as the greatest golfer; that these three seasons without a major will become four seasons or five; that his victories will not quite be on the Morrison scale - more like those of George Best or Alex Higgins, who enjoyed their days of glory, who could leave us in awe of their brilliance. But who left a few out there too.

Perverse though it can seem, for some time the talk about this extraordinarily lucky man has been of his misfortunes, his problems - an injury problem; a putting problem; a caddy problem; a tendency to play himself out of tournaments with a few ridiculously bad holes; the rise of rivals, like Jordan Spieth, who just seem to be more crazily driven.

Rory McIlroy with Erica Stoll, now his wife, in 2016
Rory McIlroy with Erica Stoll, now his wife, in 2016

Problems and distractions - even the fact that he got married this year, has been cited as a 'distraction' by those who know virtually nothing about the man, but who have been holding forth with some authority on his relationships with women since it all went wrong with Caroline Wozniacki; and even back to the days of Holly Sweeney, his first 'public' girlfriend, from whom he parted, as millions of other couples have parted, but with the small difference that he is Rory McIlroy, who is expected to 'explain' these things.

Winning some more

Perhaps because he has no obvious devotion to the more traditional recreations of drinking or gambling, the golf-club bores have naturally gone for the theory that Rory has been too concerned with matters of the heart than with the heart of the matter - which is winning, and winning, and then winning some more.

And yet, if you leave out the fact that Rory McIlroy can hire Stevie Wonder as his wedding band, it is hard to see anything going on there except plain ordinariness.

He got married at 28; he nearly got married to someone else a few years ago: if any of these 'distractions' are affecting his game, then most of the great golfers who have ever played the game, have been distracted.

No, the only thing that we know for certain is that when he tees it up these days, those numbers on the card, those unforgiving numbers, are in general not what they used to be. Though he can still shoot the lights out and win a tournament out of nowhere, still we recall the rebuke of his now departed caddy, JP Fitzgerald, at this year's British Open: "You're Rory McIlroy, what the fuck are you doing?"

You could call it the Annals of the Four Masters, these reflections on the four great Northern geniuses who are not like other geniuses. George Best and Alex Higgins and Van Morrison and now Rory McIlroy are on the extremist wing of the genius game, somehow more crazily gifted than your average mainstream genius, causing us to question if there is such a thing as too much talent for any mortal being to handle.

Best and Higgins couldn't handle it, of course. They were born with an ability to do things no other human being could do, yet they would become widely known for doing things that anyone could do - anyone could drink, anyone could chuck it in if they weren't feeling up to it.

And anyone could draw a certain comfort from this, because it brought those guys down to the level of anyone - it suggested that ultimately even the gifted ones will settle for being drunk and disorderly.

Yet even to get to the heights from which they fell, Best and Higgins had to travel a long way. It was said of John Giles, for example, that he was quite unusual in being a child prodigy who actually went on to fulfil all that potential. So Best and Higgins were not wasters, as such, they had to be seriously dedicated to their art to make it as far as they did. But being possessed of that extra ounce of the Northern genius, they were expected to make it all the way, and they didn't. Best was finished at 25; Higgins was self-destructive on a surrealist scale.

As to where this extra ounce of genius comes from, we can only guess that it might have something to do with an instinct for escape, due to growing up in an atmosphere of conflict - though of the Four Masters, at least three of them seemed perfectly capable of starting their own conflicts, regardless of the atmosphere.

What we do know, is that if Rory McIlroy wasn't a genius, everything would be absolutely wonderful. At the age of 28, he has already won four majors, and many other prestigious tournaments, whereas Padraig Harrington didn't win the first of his three majors until he was 35.

But nobody has a problem with that, because Harrington is not a genius - at least not in the classical sense of the person whose gifts are so obviously sublime, tremendous things are expected of them all the time.

Then again, I would argue that Harrington is some sort of a genius, albeit one who is coming to the genius game from the opposite end of it to McIlroy - gifted, not in the extravagant nature of his talent, but in the way he has used a relatively ordinary range of skills to achieve the most astonishing things.

We would all, in our dreams, like to possess the genius of a McIlroy, but life is probably a lot easier if you have the Harrington variety. For the rest of his days, Harrington will be admired - no, revered - as the man who took what he was given and who brought this fierce moral energy to the struggle; this tremendous desire to raise himself somehow to his own high and holy place along with the gods of his game.

McIlroy, it seems, was born and raised in that place. He seems to have started with so many natural advantages that he is admired in a different way, and judged in a different way. When Harrington won a British Open, the TV cameras picked out the teenage Rory watching his walk to victory - the obvious implication being that in times to come, Rory would be making that same journey, not once, or even three times, but many times.

So he would not have envied Harrington on that day, because he knew that barring the most ridiculous accident, this was his destiny, too. Still, there might be some small part of him today which longs for the kind of uncomplicated greatness embodied by Harrington, who in a million years would never be asked the question which has been muttered recently in the vicinity of Rory and him only with his four majors in the tank: where did it all go wrong?

George Best used to entertain the lads on the 'after-dinner' circuit with that yarn about him and Miss World in the hotel room with the Champagne and the money they'd won on the horses, and the bellboy remembering George's lost football career asking him: "Where did all go wrong?"

Oh, how they laughed at this, the ultimate after-dinner story, it being a perfect illustration of how a man's downfall can be turned so quickly into beery banter. No longer was George's early retirement something to be mourned when he had seemingly fast-forwarded through all the boring bits of a football career and got to paradise ahead of schedule.

He was good at the 'after-dinner', was George, drawing great guffaws from the crowd with lines like the one about him going to Alcoholics Anonymous, and wondering, "How the hell am I supposed to be anonymous?"

Drank himself to death

Yet despite all the chortling, he did drink himself to death. And there is no doubt that somewhere in the legend of George, there is a deep sense of the seriousness which we attach to this matter of genius, and its terrible fragility.

The world is afraid of such extreme talent - it does not want genius, and its challenges, when it can have the comforting stew of mediocrity instead. And this is where the story of George has a certain echo in the struggles of Rory McIlroy.

It may be starting to dawn on Rory that there is as much of a desire for him to fail, as there is for him to succeed. And that this is not necessarily just bad-mindedness on the part of the multitudes; it is just some strange element in the human condition which makes us uneasy when we are confronted with such brilliance.

There is this instinctive rejection of the remorseless pursuit of excellence so that Tiger Woods, for example, was never truly loved for the magnificence of his achievements; not in the way that the story of his ruination was loved. That car crash was devoured with more relish than the heroic narratives which he constructed out there on the track with his 14 majors.

Tiger gave more of himself than we were ever entitled to expect, and still we call such people 'difficult?'

He was McIlroy's idol, and Rory would have seen what Tiger needed to do to stay ahead of the posse. He needed to keep winning with a frequency that was superhuman; never even missing a cut for years; maintaining the most impossible standards.

Rory, who does not possess Tiger's urge to dominate - or at least does not possess it in anything like the same quantities - could sense the hounds looking for a piece of him as far back as 2011, when he blew the Masters.

He was admittedly just 21 years old when he blew it, and a few weeks later, he showed how much it had apparently damaged him when he went and won his first major - the US Open. And yet, by losing what should have been his first major, he had started a school of negative thinking, which persists to the present day. He had started them wondering darkly if he would ever win the Masters.

It went simply like this: yes he's won the US Open and the British Open and he's won two PGA Championships. But is he doomed never to win the one that he wants the most, the Masters? Is this proof of the old line that no matter how much the gods give you, they always withhold something?

And now they're not just asking if he'll ever win the major he wants the most - some of them are asking if he'll win any more majors of any kind.

It seems that the world just can't help it. That Rory can be sitting there with a hundred-million dollars on the table in front of him, and a place secured in the history of the game, and they're asking him about the ones that got away.

So much has gone right, and still they're asking about his failures at Augusta, about his failures in other majors since the last one he won in 2014; still they're asking: where did it all go wrong?

The thing is, the bellboy was right.

That is the real punchline to the Best yarn. It had all gone wrong for him, and he knew it. But he had created a version of himself which enabled him to parlay the waste of his precious gifts into some sort of career. Rory has none of George's weakness for drink, but in his temperament, he is probably more similar to George than he is to Alex Higgins or Van Morrison.

He is placid by nature, as George was, a charming fellow. And in that agreeable personality, there is perhaps something a bit too... relaxed.

There are times when McIlroy is playing and it's not happening for him, and he doesn't seem to mind all that much - doesn't mind, at least, the way a man of his abilities is supposed to mind.

Tiger would have regarded missing the cut in a major as a colossal embarrassment, a thing so disgraceful it ranks alongside the worst taboos of our culture, up there with incest at least.

Leaving aside the odd club thrown into the lake in circumstances of the most extreme provocation, Rory can give the impression that naturally he is disappointed by such poor play on his part, but that it is not all bad - there will be other tournaments.

Now, he may be torn up inside, he may be somehow keeping a lid on some terrible rage, but all we can see is this even-tempered style of a man who is trying to keep things in perspective. All we are seeing is something quite admirable in one way - he is the most sportsmanlike of players, a fine example to the young of how to behave yourself under pressure; a gentleman.

But in another way, it seems we want something more out of him. We want him to appear harder on himself; we want a bit of that self-loathing that Tiger used to display when he fell even slightly short of his own ridiculous standards.

When we see that things are going wrong for him, we don't want him to have the likeability of Best and we don't want him to have anything that Hurricane Higgins had. But there are times when a touch of whatever Van Morrison had might not go astray...

Because among the various reasons that Van made it across to the other side, one of the most important was this awareness he displayed that no matter how good he might be, he would have no peace. That even a Northern genius can put his best work out there and still the first word they'll use to describe him is 'grumpy'. That the world doesn't want or doesn't need you to push it with your dazzling originality; that in all these fine things you are on your own, kid.

So Morrison always gave the impression that there were forces working against him, because in many ways there were.

Rory is finding that out now. And soon we will see if he can defeat those forces, as the man standing at the other end of that fireplace defeated them - against the run of play.

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