If you aren’t a golf fan, you’ll probably find this as boring as watching the game on TV. If you are a fan, though, you may, like me, find Rory McIlroy a refreshing spring breeze in a sport that’s been suffering through a long bout of summer doldrums.
I understand that many people think golf is a game for the rich or for pansies. My tri-athlete brother-in-law even scoffs at the notion of calling it a sport, I guess because there are plenty of unfit-looking guys who are good at it and there is no tooth-grinding pain involved, at least not typically.
I got hooked at a young age by family connections. My father was a club pro at our jerry-built, 9-hole course, sculpted from my grandfather’s farm during the Great Depression on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa. Paw-Paw and his crew apparently did not use gigantic earth-movers to transform the 40 acres of rolling farm fields into fairways. The crop rows were still visible in some of our fairways, and for us kids, bouncing over those furrows in the new-fangled electric carts was even more fun than playing the game.
Golf may be associated with rich and exclusive country clubs, but such was not the case at our humble track. The doctors and lawyers belonged to the other clubs in town. Many of our members worked at the BF Goodrich plant or the Gulf States paper mill, hourly guys, so we never put on any airs.
I grew up watching the tournaments on TV because it was part of the family business. My uncle Harold Williams actually played the professional tour in the 1950s, back when it was a far-less glamorous, lucrative franchise. Harold, a large man who constantly chomped smelly cigars and went by the nickname of “Big Blue,” could drive the ball a mile, and, according to family legend, held the world record for driving distance for a time, until it was broken by a young upstart named Jack Nicklaus.
I was too young to care about the nuts-and-bolts of Big Blue’s experience on the tour, but recall hearing a few stories about long hours of driving between tournaments and late-night gin rummy games at cheap motels with his pals, the Herbert brothers from Louisiana. Harold never managed to win a PGA tournament, and I’m not sure he played the tour for more than a few years or even made expenses. But I do know, thanks to a yellowed newspaper clipping, that in the year I was born, 1955, he led the U.S. Open after the second round. The weakness in his game was putting, though, and he didn’t win; his career is not even a footnote in the annals of golf history. But for anybody who knows anything about the game, holding the lead for even one day at a U.S. Open is no small achievement.
While my brother-in-law may be right that golf does not demand tremendous endurance or even great physical strength, it is a game of exacting physical skill. You must train your muscles to move in a certain way, and then repeat that motion again and again, a nearly impossible task, as most golfers learn. Even the slightest variation can send the ball careening left or right into a hazard or the rough. It is a game of patience and humility, and if you have little of either, it probably isn’t the sport for you.
It is also a game of mental pressure that is probably unequalled in sport. Take your years of practice at perfecting that swing, then set yourself on a stage with 10,000 people surrounding you, every eye glued to you, and add in the weight of all your lifelong hopes and dreams riding on your performance. Now make that perfect swing, again and again, with long bouts of nerve-wracking waiting in between those swings. Meanwhile, train your mind to lock out even the slightest hint of self-consciousness, doubt or anxiety.
The television commentators constantly harp about the “pressure” facing pro golfers, wondering whether the new-kid phenom so highly touted in the press has what it takes to stand in the cauldron of leading a tournament on Sunday, when it all comes down to the finish. They aren’t making this up, as any Joe Hacker who has ever teed off on Number One at the local club tournament in front of a crowd of 10 or 20 on-lookers can tell you. Suddenly the simple act of hitting the ball doesn’t seem so easy. Your mouth gets dry, your arms stiff, your palms sweaty, and it seems like there’s a chorus in your head, waiting to cackle when you duff it into the lake.
The pressure at a run-of-the-mill PGA Tour event is magnitudes greater. But multiply that pressure by 100 and you get a glimpse of what the players feel at one of the four yearly “Majors,” the most prestigious titles that are the be-all, end-all of the sport.
That pressure is what makes Rory McIlroy’s domination of the U.S. Open so amazing. Just six weeks earlier he had gone into Sunday at the year’s first major, The Masters, leading by four strokes, a very healthy lead in golf. He kept that lead through nine holes of solid play, but then suddenly crumbled. He hit a terrible drive on Number 10, followed by several more excruciating goofs and a fat triple-bogey on his scorecard. In an instant, all that pressure, the thousands of fans surrounding him, the millions watching on TV, rose up like a monster and swallowed him whole, snuffing out his confidence and leading to a complete meltdown. It was painful to watch the young man suffer: a closing round of 80, an embarrassingly high score at the pro level, coupled with the ignominy of having collapsed when the coveted major trophy was inches from his grasp.
In golf such a collapse has been known to decimate careers, a blow so severe that a professional never recovers, never contends again at a major, perhaps never even wins another tournament. His head forever scrambled, he simply can’t handle it.
Rory McIlroy was gracious after his loss at the Masters, saying he would learn valuable lessons. In Hollywood-script fashion, he proved it at the very next major, the venerable U.S. Open, carving out stunning scores on a tough course. He blew away the field by 8 strokes, set the mark for the lowest Open score in history, became the youngest winner in nearly 100 years, and, perhaps most importantly, silenced his inner demons.
Even more wonderful for us golf fans, he was as gracious in victory as he had been six weeks earlier in defeat. He exhibited an aw-shucks demeanor and had candid answers to questions about his abilities and the inevitable comparisons with Tiger Woods, although he also flashed a bit of the fire and ambition that every great champion must have if he is to contend.
I was a big fan of Tiger Woods. I loved seeing a young black man dominate a sport that in my youth was reserved almost exclusively for whites by the backwards ways of my beloved South. I was awed at his skill, his mental toughness and the miraculous shots he pulled off.
But in recent years I’d grown a bit peeved at Tiger’s antics on the course. I didn’t like the way he slammed his club into the ground and muttered curses when he hit wayward shots. He had lost any hint of graciousness and seemed to have developed an arrogance. While that was understandable due to his tremendous achievements, it was grating.
I was sad to see his personal travails and to learn of his duplicitous private life. I still admire his golfing triumphs, though, and I’d still like to see him make a come-back and continue his run at Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories. But for me, the shine has definitely come off the Tiger mystique.
So Rory McIlroy is now my new main man. I’m awed by his talent, relish his mastery of the mental pressure, and look forward to a pleasant decade or two of following his career. But most of all I like the fact that he seems genuinely gracious, even humble, aware that golf is, in the end, just a game, one he is lucky and hard-working enough to be very good at playing.