Rory McIlroy: In praise of the quotidian championship golfer…

There’s a thin line between celebrity and character. When I first blogged about Rory McIlroy winning the West of Ireland Open at the age of 15 (I think), the thread (now lost) focused somewhat on what people saw at the time as the negatives of bringing up a sporting child prodigy.

Television, then the tabloids, and now the net have each in turn given us a sense that we know everything there is to know about the various public characters (or in the modern parlance celebrities) who flit across our screens.

Yet in point of fact we know very little of who they really are.

I kind of liked the fact that most of us where unsighted on McIlroy’s US PGA Championship win by an Olympic carnival which had been dominated by athletes who most of us had never heard of before, but who wrote their own audacious stories in front of millions.

We learned things we never knew before: the intricate rules of Handball; the winds in Weymouth harbour are unpredictable; and that asking a Ugandan Marathon winner about his difficult early life minutes after his victory may eventually win the title of most inappropriate question of the year.

In our duologue at the weekend, Pat Kane mentioned Richard Sennett’s book The Corrosion of Character. Sennett’s focus is the dissolution of both strong bonds of loyalty and the loss of emphasis on the acquisition of skills in the workplace.

In 1968 Andy Warhol, building on McLuhan’s famous description of TV ‘the medium as the message’, predicted that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

But the issue of character is different (if not entirely separate) one from that of Worhol’s celebrity.

In his Atlantic magazine blog, my favourite grumpy old liberal, Bob Wright, gives some hope that McIlroy may have a chance of dodging the celebrity bullet that’s done for Tiger Woods (and all celebrities) in the end:

Rory McIlroy won’t be quite the cultural icon Tiger was. He’s an extremely likeable Irishman, but there are other championship golfers who fit that description; his ethnicity doesn’t make him the breakthrough story that Tiger’s ethnicity made him.

As for whether McIlroy will be the golfer that Tiger seemed destined to be but has failed to become–that is, the golfer with the undisputed claim to be the greatest who ever lived: stay tuned.

Bob gets his comeuppance in the comment zone for jumping the gun so prematurely. McIlroy is only 23 but has yet to overhaul even Harrington’s Irish tally of major titles. In fact it is the very uncertainty of McIlroy’s future in golf that may yet prove his greatest asset.

Blowing up in the lead in Atlanta last year and coming back to take the US Open, then an indifferent major season this year eclipsed at the end by the PGA demonstrates that, at the very least, he is as human as the rest of us. As Bob notes:

There are reasons to be doubtful. Golf is a fickle and deeply psychological game, and early promise can fade much faster–and more dramatically and completely–than it did in Tiger’s case. (Google Johnny Miller or David Duval.)

But McIlroy does have one asset that Tiger Woods didn’t have: the cautionary tale of Tiger Woods.

Quite so. Yet there is something quite redeeming in the ordinary, the quotidian as Pat Kane frames it. Jack Nicklaus’s record can wait. 18 majors is not what we need to think about for a young, talented golfer who is still self consciously apprenticing amongst the best in the world.

It also put me in mind of Nicky Campbell’s rant against cant at the time of George Best’s funeral: “if we want our stars to play like Greek gods, we shouldn’t fret when they behave like Greek gods – horny, violent and amoral.”

A good sporting life well lived is the best I hope for the young Holywood man. And he’s made a sound start… Let the press write their stories, sell papers and fashion their sporting myths, and just keep on living yours…