Rory McIlroy sets the bar for stars speaking out in sporting shutdown
Last Updated: 03/05/20 12:40pm
When the world closed down, sports stars decided it was time to open up. With their day jobs cancelled, they found new roles for themselves in the world of social therapy keeping us all informed and entertained, and I'm sure we all appreciate their efforts.
We have had boxers revisiting demons, footballers firing up old feuds, rugby giants worrying about their shrinking muscles, and F1 stars enjoying thinking outside the helmet.
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Golfers, of course, have never been averse to a chat, usually about a 68 that should have been a 64, but in these last couple of months they have been able expand their raconteurial repertoire.
We have had Tiger Woods revealing all kinds of stuff about advice from his dad, his identification with Michael Jordan, what he was really thinking during press conferences, and, of course, crucially, what kind of gum he chews.
Phil Mickelson has continued to air his auditions as a chat show host, notably his 10-minute conversation with Clint Eastwood which, no doubt, made every golf punk's day.
Twitter kings Eddie Pepperell and Max Homa have not disappointed, the former discussing everything from fine wine and food to the price of oil, with the latter telling us about setting his alarm for a place in the line at Walmart to buy toilet rolls. "Didn't see it in my list of activities for 2020, but here we are," was his sardonic take.
This accidental collision between stardom and everyday life has been an understandable and welcome diversion from the relentless, harrowing daily death tolls. Seeing our idols shorn of their golfing uniforms and free to talk openly has given us a glimpse of the real personalities behind their professional persona.
It's good to see them au natural, but what I find most interesting is that in the case of Rory McIlroy, there's little difference between the two versions. In other words, it does not take a lockdown for Rory to open up and share his true feelings. He's been doing that for years at tournament press conferences.
In Rory Watchalong on Sky Sports Golf, we enjoyed hearing him talk about his reading material, his hair, his gym work, his locker room glass of wine after winning last year's Players Championship, and his need to be honest to himself and others.
Funnily enough, to me, the guy in the tee shirt relaxing at home sounded just like the guy who sits in front of journalists every working week and treats it all as a kind of group therapy, where he tries to be as upfront as he can and where he believes a thoughtful question deserves a thoughtful reply.
He's a dream subject for the media because he rarely filters his opinions, even if some of his spur-of-the-moment comments require some tidying up later. Apologies come easily to a young man who's quick to say sorry when he realises he's gone too far or offended anyone.
His forthright approach to most situations can be disconcerting to the uninitiated. I first met him on the practice range at the Dubai Desert Classic in 2007 when, as a 17-year-old amateur, he had just shot 69 in the first round.
During our interview, I unwisely put it to him that he was in a good position to make the cut. "Oh no," he quickly replied, "I can do a lot better than that." I looked to his dad, Gerry, who simply gave me a knowing wink that said do not mess with this headstrong kid who has belief to match his talent.
Rory was right, because a second 69 on Friday had him coasting into the weekend and only a final round of 76 dropped him out of the top-20 at the end. From that day forward, I have followed every detail about Rory and enjoyed many conversations with his mum and dad.
Some years after the Dubai encounter, I suggested to Rory in a quiet moment that I thought no amount of prize money and private jets would change him, because he would never forget where he came from.
He did not disagree at the time and he certainly could not avoid that overpowering connection with home last July when he turned up for The Open at Royal Portrush and suffered perhaps his most humiliating day as a professional golfer. Crushed as he was, he did not run and he did not hide and he walked tall among his own people the following day, realising no one thought any less of him as a person.
Whether or not that specific experience persuaded him he would not allow golf to define him as a human being is irrelevant, but the notion of separating life from career has certainly become something of a mantra in recent times.
It's the kind of thing other golfers might conclude privately and keep to themselves, but not Rory. He was happy to tell the next press conference that came along and take it on the chin from anyone who thought he had just come up with something to ease the constant pressure to win.
Maybe that need to escape expectation is just what's happened by accident for Rory in the last two months when he's had an enforced holiday from golf.
Apart from his genuine concern about the world's suffering, he's been free to be a real everyday person again, to read his favourite books, listen to new music, enjoy family time, and think even more about what defines him as a human being.
What I'm looking forward to though when this is all over is Rory McIlroy re-defining himself as a golfer, one who refuses to accept fewer major championships than he deserves.
We all love a superstar who is genial, honest, and accommodating, but we will love him even more if he finds a private compartment in his heart and mind for that most selfish of sporting needs best described as killer instinct. That can't be easy for someone who cares about people and the planet, someone who has a good life and an ability to influence real-world opinions.
But Rory can rest assured he's already won the popularity contest. Now he can turn his attention to winning more majors.