In my days putting together TV sports news bulletins there was always a certain level of sportsperson who would go high in the running order no matter what they were talking about or getting up to.
Roy Keane, Ronan O’Gara, Davy Fitzgerald. Mourinho, before he went miserable. Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Becks.
Obviously this was a manifestation of celebrity culture, the understanding that a very famous face on screen is televisual crack cocaine, an irresistible force that compels viewers to watch that person even if they are waffling on about a hamstring twang. But it was more than fame that justified these people’s presence in our three-minute slot before the story about a squirrel riding a skateboard.
You could see it around the newsroom. The politics wonks would quit droning on about Enda and Micheal, the crime guys would glance up from their court notebooks. Even the squirrels-on-skateboards correspondent would pay attention.
They’d all listen intently for 30 seconds before the bulletin moved on to League of Ireland fixtures and they could ignore us again. Call it charisma or presence, but these stars were interesting beyond sport.
People who were not bothered about the latest PRO14 game or the upcoming golf tournament wanted to watch them, yes, because they were famous, but also because they had a compelling inner life that manifested itself on camera. (Well, apart from Becks. He was just dead sexy).
Rory McIlroy is one of these people. He might even be among the best of them because his compelling inner life often becomes his compelling outer life, in the way his fluctuations of personality manifest themselves in the dramatic swerves of his career path.
This week’s news — that he is now actually totally gung-ho about the whole Olympics thing and, not only that, will gladly march behind the tricolour in Tokyo next year — is a case in point. It’s the kind of thing that makes people say they dislike McIlroy; another jolting contradiction of a previously stated position, another headstrong notion that will last until the next one comes along. For many, to borrow a metaphor from his own personal life, McIlroy is always calling off the wedding after the invitations have been sent out.
Aside from his own lifestyle choices, tournament preferences and national allegiances, caddies, management companies, equipment providers, and, yes, prospective spouses have all felt the brunt of his sudden pivots in direction.
This gets McIlroy flak from those who feel it shows a flakiness of character, a lack of iron resolution ill-suited to one of the most mentally challenging sports.
Some like to psychoanalyse: Is it because he is an only child, a prodigious one at that, spoiled, by his own admission? Did that breed a need to please on one hand, but a tendency to petulance on the other?
Does he throw the toys out of the pram when he’s in a tight spot because he was never in too many of them during his meteoric formative years? Does this flip-flopping trait explain his worrying Sunday syndrome, his current tendency to blow up at the business end of tournaments?
Yes, Rory contradicts himself.
But Rory is defined by his contradictions. They are what give him membership of that club of characters that used to stop the newsroom, the people whose charisma is such that you can watch the human struggle play out in their faces, Shakespeare in a press conference.
McIlroy is the child of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. His dad is an extrovert, his mother an introvert. He was raised a Catholic but went to a predominantly Protestant school.
He was the supernova golden child who liked to lark around with his pals. He joined up with the upstart lads-about-town management company, then took them on in a toxic court battle.
He was inspired by Tiger Woods but recoils at what it took to be Tiger Woods. He wants to be the best golfer in the world but he wants to be a normal guy too.
He wants to be the selfish, single-minded sports phenomenon but he wants to be a son, a husband and maybe a father too someday soon. The Olympics thing?
He played golf for Ireland, but was raised in the British system. He felt insufficient allegiance to either but identified with both — he is Northern Irish, and we know that’s complicated, too complicated to get in hot water for something which wasn’t even a proper golf tournament. Zika virus? That gets me out of it. No. I’ll tell the truth.
Olympic golf to me doesn’t mean that much — it really doesn’t. I don’t get excited about it.
Actually, maybe it’s kind of cool after all. I mean, it’s the Olympics, and it’s in Japan. That’ll be cool. And the sponsors will be happy and… Cut to Tuesday in Bethpage. “I’m excited to be going to the Olympics. I’m excited to play for Ireland.”
Every time you watch McIlroy speak, whether it is about club selection on the 15th tee or about matters of greater personal import, you see him struggle with his contradictions. He is compelling because his conflicts are those of any normal human mind, where absolute truths and concrete certainties do not really exist. His struggles are just amplified and openly expressed in that sing-song mid-Atlantic voice.
Even his explanation about the Olympic U-turn reads like an inner monologue, a justification to himself.
“It’s the same as like the rugby players, right? There’s players that play for Ulster, but they want to play for Ireland. It’s seen as a whole-island sport, just like hockey is, just like most of the sports are.
“So then obviously when you put the Olympics into the equation and there’s a choice to be made, you really have to start thinking: ‘Okay, well, what are your beliefs and your values?’”
It’s the question McIlroy spends his life asking and one you will always stop to watch him try to answer.