Friday 13 December 2019

Comment: Rory McIlroy must win Sports Personality of the Year award

Rory McIlroy is a shoe-in for the Sports Personality of the Year award
Rory McIlroy is a shoe-in for the Sports Personality of the Year award

Paul Hayward

Fixated by Tiger Woods and his software malfunctions, the world of sport has neglected to recognise the true scale of Rory McIlroy’s achievement in becoming golf’s world No 1 at 25 and adding the British Open to his array of major titles, which now requires only the Masters for the set to be glitteringly complete.

This week’s announcement of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year nominees produced the usual split-brain response.

One side of the mind recoiled at the image of another multi-millionaire frozen by awkwardness on receipt of a television corporation’s trophy at a gala piled on top of a light entertainment executive’s fantasy.

The reward, as with all things, is in the victory, rather than the award stuck on top of the win, yet the brain’s other half is always weirdly pleased to be able to grade the season’s pageant as it draws to a close.

The 2012 symphony is a fading memory. Then, London 2012’s Olympians spread more happiness than we knew what do with; Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour de France and Europe staged an astonishing Sunday comeback to win the Ryder Cup at Medinah. It was such a vintage year that the amazing Ben Ainslie could sail no further than ninth and McIlroy was one place back in 10th, despite adding the US PGA to the US Open title he won in 2011.

The temptation was to think British sport had entered some kind of Edwardian golden age. The following year was hardly shabby either. Andy Murray’s laying to rest of Fred Perry’s ghost after 77 years rendered him the biggest certainty since Shergar lined up for the Derby. Chasing him home were rugby’s Leigh Halfpenny and jump racing’s A P McCoy, who would make most prize-fighters feel like softies.

Gareth Bale, who scored in Real’s Decima-completing Champions League win over cross-town rivals Atlético, is no frivolous nominee. To enter the domain of Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s most expensive player and stick diligently to the task of displaying his talent on club football’s grandest stage was no simple business. Bale steeled himself against external distraction and proved himself worthy of the call, if not the fee.

Just as there is no English footballer within flying range of the Ballon d’Or, though, it is hard to imagine any of Roy Hodgson’s men elbowing his way on to the SPOTY list; or indeed, anyone from the current England cricket or rugby teams. Starlets can be identified in each of those set-ups but equally all three are singing hymns of rebuilding and transition.

Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after winning the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium after winning the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

So the BBC is able to satisfy both ends of the market. It celebrates the heavily commodified but clearly gifted F1 champion, Lewis Hamilton, and venerates McIlroy, but the shortage of superstar candidates also allows the review of the year to uphold the more Corinthian or less popular sports.

Adam Peaty (swimming), Max Whitlock (gymnastics), Lizzy Yarnold (skeleton) and Kelly Gallagher and Charlotte Evans (paralympic skiing) will prompt much guilty shifting on sofas.

Their praise comes and goes in media flashes before everyone turns back to Super Sunday in the Premier League. Charlotte Dujardin is Olympic, world and European champion in dressage. Jo Pavey won 10,000m European Championship gold at 40 years and 325 days. Yet you can back Pavey at 50-1 and Dujardin at 100-1.

These odds are notional, of course, because this is a two horse race, with McIlroy as short as 5-1 ON and Hamilton around 3-1 against, despite the healthy viewing figures for Sunday’s finale in Abu Dhabi.

The bookies have this right, morally, because Ireland's McIlroy must win in a year when he won two majors and was a growing inspiration to Europe’s Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles. If he were to win the Masters at Augusta in April he would become only the sixth golfer to win all four majors.

At 25, he is the phenomenon everyone hoped he would be when he emerged from Irish club golf as a loose, natural, instinctive artist with clubs. He has set all sorts of traps for himself in relationship, management and PR terms, but overcome them all.

Unlike Hamilton, his equipment counted massively against him, until he overcame his switch to Nike gear.

You want a simple summary of his year or so? Here it comes: prodigy, gets distracted, splits up with fiancé, retreats to gym, comes out ripped, realises at last that his talent is the basis of everything. Sees, at last, that he can dominate an infernally hard game simply by protecting and applying his gift.

Hamilton is quick, but in this race McIlroy goes gliding past.

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