Ireland is quietly coming to terms with the arrival of a new sporting superstar today. McIlroy’s performance at Congressional may not have been entirely unexpected to those already familiar with the depth of the 22-year-old’s talent, but it has momentarily succeeded in bridging the gap between the golfing half of the population and those for whom golf is still synonymous with the Tiger Woods corporate monolith.
It has been a reaction the universal nature of which has prompted a re-evaluation on my part of the sport’s first post-Tiger superstar. Having followed McIlroy’s career closely over the years, I think I’d lost an appreciation of just how transformative a figure he still had the potential to be, in the context of both the game and international sport at-large.
Too affable to become an icon, too sensitive to become a champion: I’d always suspected that McIlroy lacked some of the indefinable qualities that set the Tigers and Jacks of the world, its most ruthless and calculating assassins, apart from other, merely talented, mortals.
Yesterday’s triumph, around a course that played to his strengths and mitigated the influence of his weaknesses, may appear to leave the question of McIlroy’s resolve open to some debate. Were the game little more than a deal struck between technique and strategy, a reduction to mechanical first principles, that might well be the case, but golfing success, as we’re all aware, is the result of a more complex interaction between those concrete things and the more inscrutable aspects of the psyche: moral courage, self-confidence, regret, shame…
Winning the US Open by a massive eight shots leaves itself open to criticism; doing so only two months removed from a grotesque public humiliation of the sort he was forced to endure at the Masters is an unanswerable statement of mental strength.
His win at Congressional seems so vital and refreshing precisely because it was the coda his experiences of recent months demanded. McIlroy knew it, the crowd sensed it, and the result was the most jubilant and mismatched major championship in recent memory. Having the guts to win is one thing; having the guts to do it when you need to, when your self-esteem, even Destiny, demands it, is quite another.
McIlroy may still have his weaknesses, but he seized control of his own path this weekend in a way few sports stars have ever proven capable. Not only that, but he did it without making any of the changes many of us (myself included) felt were inevitable.
Management, coaching team, caddie: all remain unchanged, with the merit of each association made clear over the course of the weekend, the reasons for the youngster’s faith in each broadcast, literally, to the golfing world. I had doubted JP Fitzgerald’s assertiveness in the heat of the moment, but was confronted with first-hand evidence of his worth. The obvious strength of his rapport with the youngster aside, it’s worth noting that the yardages for those laser-like irons didn’t go about calculating themselves.
It took some bravery on McIlroy’s part to accept responsibility for the Masters debacle and seek redemption in renewed diligence, as opposed to sudden change. It may not appear of great importance, but it was a display of self-confidence and commitment that, viewed in retrospect, should have spoken volumes to those of us who cover the game. Either way, it’s unlikely that we’ll find ourselves underestimating Rory McIlroy’s fortitude again in the near future.