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…

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  • babyface finlayson

    It gives me no pleasure to point out that it should be ‘quotidian’.
    Unless Rory is French.

  • Mick Fealty

    Ah… fixed now… thanks…

  • Ruarai

    “There’s a thin line between celebrity and character.”

    No there’s not. It’s a chasm.

  • Mister_Joe

    Thinking of the likes of Charlie Sheen, Ruarai?

  • Ruarai

    Well Joe, the entire cultural phenom really. I’ve nothing against celebs per se, I just wish they’d f right off out of the airwaves. There is something distinctly creepy about people who actively seek to lose normal levels of anonymity, don’t you think?

    Now, I’m not suggesting that character is mutually exclusive with celebrity but one can definitely have celebrity without any character. And when you think of people of great character you know or from history and then contrast them with so many or are or who seek “celebrity”, can you think of two types of people with less in common?

    Celebrity (rather than celebrities) is the scourge of our age.

    It gives life to a whole host of wretched values and even institutions – like the monarchy.

    Perhaps the monarchy is the supreme example of this. What else could possibly justify the continued existence of and sickly interest in the British royal family other than a debasement of character values for those of celebrity instead?

  • Mister_Joe

    Can’t disagree, Ruarai. Something that always annoys me, although I won’t do it myself, is people walking around acting as unpaid billboards for dressmakers. And having paid a huge premium for the dubious pleasure.

    Regarding the golf, I think it is much harder now to rise to the level of a Tiger Woods, precisely because Tiger has shown the way by his dedication to fitness and inspiring a new generation out there. There are a lot of very good youngsters playing. But Rory is off to a great start.

  • Drumlins Rock

    For a while I though that to suceed in modern sport you had to be “driven” as you grew up, ie. Tiger & the Williams sisters, where an extremely ambitious father seemed to mould them into the role in an extremely focused fashion, possibly resulting in some of the later problems?

    I was struck however by what appears to a very different role Rory’s father has paid, the drive has come from Rory himself, but with strong support all the way along. How accurate the perception is i’m not sure, but hopefully it should lead to Rory being able to “treat those two imposters just the same”.

  • Mick Fealty

    Stay classy Ruairi… McLuhan is the clue… The medium has been the message… Lit space, the box, the social focus of nations… It cannot but help, over time, traduce character and reason.. And undervalue the ordinary…