Billionaires might go broke speculating about Rory McIlroy. He’s a genius and a champion. He’s the choker-in-chief. A winner, a loser, a legend, a disappointment made flesh.
He’ll go down in the record books, the greatest golfer Europe has ever produced, a man ready to take his place on the patheon. He’s a classic underachiever, rich in cash but poor when it comes to the fortitude that is elemental to the make-up of a truly great player like a Woods or a Nicklaus.
Take your pick but be quick, because there will be another variety of the McIlroy Enigma along before you know it.
The most recent episode in the Irishman’s compelling personal journey played out in Atlanta on Sunday, when he steamrollered a 30-man field, including world No. 1 Brooks Koepka, to win the PGA Tour Championship and, oh yes, the $15 million cheque given to the winner of the FedEx Cup.
Throw in win ‘bonuses’ from his sponsors and McIlroy probably broke the $20 million barrier with the victory.
Not a bad little earner.
“I didn’t think about it once,” McIlroy said afterwards when asked about the money. If you believed that one, I have a bridge to sell you. The Irishman – who once let slip in the heat of a Twitter fight with the obnoxious former major champion Steve Elkington that he had ‘more like $200 million’ in the bank – is only human and $20 million is a lot of money however much you already have.
But if McIlroy is not immune to baser financial impulses of the nine-to-five world, it is unquestionably the case that money is not his principal motivation. Winning is.
Any famous athlete can blow a mountain of cash, and plenty have done exactly that. What they cannot fritter away is reputation and the record they have worked so hard to compile during their career. Last, and far from least, there is the peer respect that comes with being the alpha dog. That’s what he referred to in the aftermath of Sunday’s finale.
“I was thinking about winning this tournament, winning the stroke average. All those things are way more important to me. I realise I’m in a very privileged position that I can say that but at this stage in my career they are way more important to me.”
For a while there, big ol’ Brooks thought he was the biggest cheese in the fromagerie. Well, he knows different now, as they say in the cowboy movies. McIlroy might only be No. 2 in the world rankings to Koepka’s numero uno but he kicked the America’s backside from one side of East Lake to the other.
In the face of circumstantial evidence (okay, let’s call it what it has been – a series of mediocre performances in the Majors) to the contrary, those who know golf best have long said that McIlroy’s best on any given day beats everyone else on Planet Golf, regardless of how well they play.
Sunday was definitive proof of that. He was irresistible and brilliant. Has there ever been a world-class golfer who played with violent power of a heavyweight boxer and the artistry and grace of a prima ballerina? Sam Snead, perhaps. Byron Nelson, possibly. Is there another golfer playing today who has even a tenth of McIlroy’s charisma? I’ll take your answer off-line, caller.
Of course, charisma doesn’t win Major championships and in the only currency that really matters to most in modern professional golf, McIlroy has been a pauper since his PGA Championship victory at Valhalla, Kentucky in 2014. A five-year hiatus that has covered what might have been considered the athletic prime of his golfing life.
He is now 30 years old and, injuries and motivation notwithstanding, he has another 10 to 12 years at the very top of his game. That’s 40 to 48 chances to add to his total of four Major championships.
More importantly, some might say, it is 10-12 more chances to reach the promised land of the career grand slam.
It’s still only August but make no mistake, Augusta next April is already looming. Will 2020 finally be the year we see McIlroy wearing that gloriously hideous green jacket and making awkward small talk with Jim Nantz?
This is the question, merely one of a thousand questions, that will follow the Irishman now. Who knows what the answer will be. And should we care anyway? After all, uncertainty is what makes professional sports so compulsive. Triumph (and failure) is what makes McIlroy such a compelling figure to watch.
Of course there are plenty of sages willing to deliver a verdict right now. Good luck to them all, but let’s also tip our cap to those who have chosen a different path. Let them sit back, enjoy and take a moment to offer up a blessing.
What a time it is to be alive in these times of sporting genius such as Rory McIlroy.
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