Golf: Hold off 'legend' talk, let's just enjoy the kid's talent

Golf: Hold off 'legend' talk, let's just enjoy the kid's talent
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy holds up the Claret Jug after winning the 2014 British Open Golf Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Course in Hoylake, north west England on July 20, 2014.

Trophies and coronations, labels and tags, history and hype. Rory McIlroy better be ready for his brave new world. He's played 25 Majors across eight years and brilliantly won four, but in the mad mathematics of golf - with its frantic talk already of a Rory Slam and Next Tiger - some folk are even flirting with 18.

The 18 which took Jack Nicklaus 105 attempts and 24 years to accomplish. The 18 which Tiger Woods, who we insisted was destined to get there, is four short of.

Rory McIlroy - whose calibrated hunting down of Phil Mickelson and Ricky Fowler was majestic - should be allowed to make history at his own stylish pace. To be cherished for what he is, not might be. But no, in all sport we decide a player's future, pick a number for him, then see if he can live up to it.

In this even Nicklaus, a gentle man of refreshing generosity, did him a disservice. He had praised McIlroy's swing and swagger but also said "I think (he) has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 Majors". In an Internet world of unerasable memory, this line will never die.

Rory McIlroy looks like a kid, played like a champion and spoke like an adult and he's going to need all that for the next two decades: joy, talent, maturity. He also knows this isn't about just him, it's about a sport.

A sport which the New York Times wrote "has lost five million players in the last decade". A sport whose TV ratings dipped when Woods missed the Masters and US Open. A sport whose top ranking changed hands 13 times across six players in the past four years. A sport pleading for a hero.

Rory McIlroy is expected to fix all this, but let's not confuse him with Woods. The first is a pure golfer, the second was a minor revolution. Woods turned golf into an inclusive sport, a physical sport, a sport where people who couldn't tell fairway from freeway tuned in to watch. Sponsors tied their bandwagons to his red shirt and players benefited: In 1997, the year Woods first won a Major, there were 18 millionaires on the US PGA Tour money list. By 2002, when the Tiger Effect had embedded itself, there were 61.

Rory McIlroy - more genial than Woods, more open, more available - needs to forget about his own effect, forget Woods, forget 18, forget sponsors, forget distraction and just play golf. Like he did on Sunday.

Tough golf. Calm golf. Focused golf. Victory seemed to come from club, but arrived from a far more sophisticated place: the mind. "Ugly" was his description of his win and it was an admission both beautiful and frightening.

He did not win with dominant blade by seven shots, but by stifling panic and holding concentration after three tiring weeks, by leading first, then lapsing and then lifting (unlike Woods, who never won a Major from behind). As he told ESPN, "I learnt I can do it this way. I learnt I can win a Major ugly if I need to. I didn't play my best golf this week, I got the job done."

Rory McIlroy was greater than everyone without being his greatest self. Be impressed. Be scared. And go watch his second shot on the par-five, 590-yard 10th hole.

He watches Fowler make a 28-foot birdie putt to go three shots up. He needs to get close to Fowler, he says, needs a birdie, needs a shot of skill and effrontery, needs to send an urgent message to the self and the field.

On day one at the 10th, his second shot, a three-wood, flies left and he makes double bogey. On Sunday he "trusts" his instinct, pulls his three wood from its scabbard and takes a mighty cut. His tiny grimace suggests he's unsure of its trajectory - "it didn't come out perfectly," he concedes - but the ball lands, runs, curls and finishes seven feet from the pin. Great players make things happen and then sometimes great things happen for courageous players.

He makes his eagle putt and then he flies. An iron to 12 feet at the 11th, to eight feet at the 12th, to 10 feet at the 13th, to 12 feet at the 17th. Baby-face simply turned brutal on the back nine.

Rory McIlroy, when he's done drinking from his trophy, may want to listen again to Nicklaus. A Nicklaus who attached a caveat to his "15 or 20 Majors" remark and said "but you just don't know what the guy's priorities are going to be in life 10 years from now".

Fame. Marriage. Kids. Money. Pressure. Injury. Controversy.

Life - just ask Woods - gets in the way, muddles the mind, wears down the body. This is the fascination of greatness, for we cannot presume journeys but only live them with champions. So let's not stamp a number or a label on the kid. Let's forget 18. Let's just say four, which is one fewer than Severiano Ballesteros and be amazed. Let's just watch as in the darkness a young man shines a talented light.

This article was first published on August 12, 2014.
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