by Barry McStay
There used to be something very appropriate about Tiger Woods being golf’s world number one. As a young Irish golf fan, growing up in the whitest, least-sunny country in the world, seeing this black, muscular, exotically-monikered superhuman with the almond eyes and the dazzling smile prowling the fairways was how it should be. And a little bit hot.
But Tiger’s otherness and ability to do the seemingly impossible time after time sat well with the concept of “best in the world”.
Of course he had to be different to the rest of us, the pasty-faced amateurs hacking about in the long grass. Tiger never needed a golf-ball retrieval claw to fish in ponds. Tiger never looked like he might dissolve into a nervous pile of formerly-human gloop while standing over a tricky 3-foot putt. I suspect Tiger never even needed to use the clubs – he could have stared the ball into the hole – he just decided to use the sticks because ball-staring is not yet a competitive sport. More’s the pity.
(Picture by luckypic http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=3739)
So yes, having a beautiful black half-Thai American man with a great cat’s name at the pinnacle of golfing precision, power and prowess made sense to my awe-filled Irish brain. His predecessor was Greg Norman: The Great White Shark. Another cool name. The man who Tiger is seeking to supplant as the best golfer of all time is Jack Nicklaus: The Golden Bear. Men with carnivorous animal nicknames tend to do well at golf, apparently.
But over the last couple of years, something very weird has been going on at the top of the golfing pile. Firstly, a skinny German kid named Martin got to number one, seemingly during his gap year. He was followed by the dumpy chap with the crooked teeth from a place called Worksop called Lee who resembled a darts pro tipsily wandering into the wrong sport. And then there was a nice, short, young Englishman called Luke who you could happily introduce to your mother and expect him to politely humour her by discussing the right moisture level in tea-cake in some detail.
Seriously, after the Bear, the Shark and Tiger, we had world number ones called Martin, Lee and Luke. Those are BANK MANAGER names. And now? Now there’s a boy called Rory McIlroy – you may have heard of him.
I’ve got an uncle called Rory. I was at school with a Rory. At university with two. I’ve three Rorys in my phone. And he’s Irish. He goes out in Belfast with his mates on his weekends off. He supports Ulster rugby and Manchester United. He’s got the stupid, unmanageable curly hair we like to call the Mick-Fro. That’s not exotic. That’s not strange. That’s most of my Facebook friends. Dammit, I’m practically a Rory McIlroy myself. I’ve even got the Mc in my name!
Honestly, what’s McIlroy doing as world number one? Sure, he’s got the nicest swing in golf, he smacks the ball farther than the eye can see and can make the most difficult escape acts look easier than Houdini in a prison with no bars, no guards, no walls and no prison. But we chubby-cheeked, ruddy-complexioned young Paddies have no business being best in the world at anything other than drinking irresponsibly, spending money irresponsibly and suppressing our emotions irresponsibly.
(Photo by farconville http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2717)
We Irish don’t cope well with success. Ten years with money was all we could handle before the yen for famine, poverty and glaring jealously at the English consumed us once more. We’ve built a reputation for being the little island whose sporting performances are best described as ‘plucky’ and ‘gutsy’ – sportspeak for ‘glorious failures’. It’s just easier to lose, otherwise you’re expected to be gracious, make speeches, celebrate in moderation – losers can legitimately drown their sorrows.
At last year’s US Masters, McIlroy led the field by four shots heading into the final round. He was still one ahead with nine holes to play before a triple-bogey seven on the 10th hole initiated a major collapse. The pictures of Rory wandering around in the trees somewhere six miles left of the fairway on the 10th were sad. They showed a scared boy who looked like he was dealing with the death of Santa and seven of the reindeer in a five sleigh pile-up. He was just a little Irish kid being pushed around by the grown-up world, coming to terms with the fact of his non-invincibility.
For years Rory McIlroy has been lauded as a supreme talent, a gifted prodigy and a potential world-beater. His rise had been meteoric. His career trajectory was a continuous upward arc. And suddenly the rocket boosters failed. A normal Irish man would have retreated into mediocrity, his moment in the sun leading to the inevitable catastrophic sunburn. He would enter the great pantheon of nearly-but-not-quites with a few stories to tell between pints.
A couple of months later Rory McIlroy won the US Open, destroying a top-quality field by eight shots, setting the lowest score ever in US Open history. Less than a year later and with three more tournament victories under his belt, he has become the official world number one. His last 12 tournaments have seen him finish no lower than 11th. He has worked out and bulked up to the extent that he has become one of the rarest of creatures: a buff, almost sexy Irishman who isn’t Colin Farrell. His work ethic has seen him improve every aspect of his game exponentially. Every week he plays, he expects – and is expected – to contend. He is becoming more Tigerish than Tiger himself. But with freckles. I’VE GOT FRECKLES!
Rory’s just plain weird, precisely because he’s so darn familiar to me. He’s very Irish but he’s winning. He’s a multi-millionaire, he’s dating a beautiful tennis professional in Caroline Wozniacki and he’s got more talent in his little finger than I do in my South African talent mine. And he’s the very best.
Not only that, but he’s NICE. He’s NORMAL. Tiger was freakishly driven to be the best and hardly seemed to notice anybody else around him while he played 18 holes. Rory is freakishly driven to be the best and TALKS? He SMILES? What’s up with that?! God, don’t you HATE it when a top sportsman is genuinely lovely, deserving and IRISH? It’s just confusing!