So far, it’s an honour that has eluded Rory McIlroy on that popular segment of the Second Captains Live TV Show. Whenever a guest star has been asked to nominate and eliminate someone to and from an evolving gallery of top 10 greatest Irish sports people ever, Katie Taylor has been left untouched, Henry Shefflin pretty much too while Brian O’Driscoll has been only taken off to be moved somewhere else among the top three spots in the pantheon. Pádraig Harrington and Sonia O’Sullivan at the other’s request have been up and down, a bit like their careers, while even the likes of Denis Taylor and Wayne McCullough made fleeting appearances as Rory remained overlooked.
Recent events should change that. First there’s been his declaration as to who he’ll play for in the Olympics, even if he remains very much Northern Irish. And then there’s the matter that he’s just won his third major at age 25.
Not only should it be a formality that he finally makes the Good Wall in that programme’s next season but there is a growing and formidable case that he is already the greatest sports person to emerge from this island.
It’s a point this column regularly makes: this country has little idea of just how few people compete in the sports Katie and Drico have excelled in and just how many people play and follow the sports McIlroy, Harrington, O’Sullivan, Keane and George Best have competed in. And at this moment, McIlroy’s name is in even higher company than that.
Look at the 11 highest paid athletes by Nike. Rory makes more than Ronaldo, Kobe, LeBron, Sharapova, Nadal, Federer and Yankees star Derek Jeter. It is estimated the swoosh now pay him as much Tiger. Only Michael Jordan brings in more.
That’s the company and orbit Rory now operates in.
Only a few times in Irish sports history have we had something like this, if ever. For a few years in the 1960s, George Best was probably the most exciting and maybe even best footballer in Europe. For a couple of seasons either side of the millennium, Roy Keane was probably the best central midfielder in world football, without ever being its best player. Right now Rory McIlroy is the best golfer in the world and could well remain so for the rest of the decade. The fact people aren’t even questioning whether or not he’ll eclipse Pádraig’s three majors and are forecasting he’ll finish much closer to Tiger’s 14 is a measure of the scale of his talent.
Unfortunately the furore over the snubbed autograph caused a bit of conjecture reminiscent of another great Irish sporting victory when the flag hullabaloo deviated from Sonia’s brilliance in Gothenburg 1995.
For what it’s worth, we thought Rory was dead right. Certainly Bill Russell would have approved. The former Boston Celtics star who won 11 NBA titles as a player is considered the greatest winner American team sport has known but was also notorious for his refusal to sign autographs, once describing the variety of autograph-seeker McIlroy encountered last Sunday as “little monsters out hunting scalps”.
For Russell, his stance was a matter of principle and personal freedom, something he would outline in his book with probably the most apt subtitle ever: Second Wind: The Memoirs of An Opinionated Man. For him the whole process and interaction of the athlete signing an autograph was “phoney” and impersonal, something that created an illusion of contact and familiarity — ‘Oh here’s Bill Russell’s autograph, I’m something to him, look’ — when Russell didn’t even get to catch your name. He’d prefer to shake your hand and know your name than sign his own.
“Typical autograph seekers are a mixture of shyness and rudeness,” Russell would write.
“Nobody looks each other in the eye at an autograph session. Strangers would say ‘Not signing autographs, eh? Well, who do you think you are?’ As though signing autographs were an exercise in humility for celebrities, administered by the fans as therapy. In the autograph game, either the fans are prostrate and the stars are high and mighty, or vice versa. There’s no such thing as an even keel.
“Sometimes I’d answer the people who called me uppity by saying, ‘I don’t think it matters to you who I think I am. But evidently it does matter who YOU think I am, and if I deviate from what YOU think I should be, you get pissed.’ ...As I saw it, I had to make a choice between these people and me, and I chose myself.”
Last Sunday, after walking off the 18th to the recorder hut was McIlroy’s moment. He was entitled to savour it, have no one interfere in it, especially any little monsters out hunting scalps.
At another time McIlroy would have signed it, just not then. Don’t put him in your bad books. Instead put him near if not the top of the Good Wall.