Lovable Rory could do worse than be himself

McIlroy must not be sidetracked by trying to become the next Tiger Woods

For professional golf, it appears to be perfect timing. Having recently reached the sixth anniversary of Tiger Woods’ last Major championship (the 2008 US Open), we are in the feelgood days of Rory McIlroy’s third conquest of one of golf’s great prizes.

Such joy. A young man has come along to fill the void left by the vaunted but wounded veteran. Every sport benefits when there is a king or a dominating force, someone to attract a public’s fancy, and McIlroy senses that the moment could be now.

“Some have heard me say that golf is looking to someone to put their hand up and try [to dominate],” McIlroy said as he took hold of the Claret Jug. “I said at that time I want to be that person. I want be to be the guy that goes on and wins Majors and wins Majors regularly.”

There will be plenty who take that comment and translate it to mean that McIlroy wants to be the next Woods and, what’s more, they might suggest that the young man from Holywood, is on track to be just that.

But there are several ways to digest that and grasp a clearer perspective of the topic. McIlroy’s triumph at Royal Liverpool, brilliant as it was, did not elevate him into a Woods-like stratosphere.

At least not yet.

McIlroy has played in 23 Major championships as a professional and won three. In his first 23 Majors as a pro, Woods won eight times. Elementary math was a long time ago, but so far as memory serves me, eight is more than twice what three is, so it’s difficult from this corner to give equal billing to these two golfers in historical achievements.

That’s not to say they are currently on par, because McIlroy is far superior to Woods at the moment and likely to add more treasures to his cache.

Good for him and here’s hoping he continues to contend in the Majors and doesn’t fall into the sort of funk that made him such a curiosity in 2013. McIlroy at his very best is a joy to watch and makes the game better.

But if there was a wish for the young man it would be this: Forget being the next Tiger Woods and be the best Rory McIlroy you can be, because they are totally different endeavours.

Woods’ solitary quest to dominate the game was reached, but at a very steep price. Socially awkward, he never has cared about connecting to fans, having a circle of friends, nurturing business relationships, or being media-friendly. He is a polarising figure not because of the personal-life meltdown in late 2009, but because he was raised to focus on the straight-ahead and not on any of life’s settings around him. He has never trusted anyone or reached out of his insular world to offer any sort of peek into his personality or to give of himself. He is guarded and detached.

McIlroy is different. He is lovable, easy to be around, laughs warmly, and for most of his pro career has enjoyed a good relationship with the media. Even the bumps in the road — the changing of management companies, the publicised relationship with Caroline Wozniacki, the struggles of 2013 — were seen as a young man growing up and learning by his mistakes.

He is honest and human.

To study golf’s past is to appreciate how icons come along every 10 years or so. Harry Vardon was born in 1870, Willie Anderson in 1879, Walter Hagen in 1892, Bobby Jones in 1902, Ben Hogan in 1912, Arnold Palmer in 1929, Jack Nicklaus in 1940, Tom Watson in 1949. So Tiger Woods being born in 1975 and Rory McIlroy in 1989 is consistent with that, but the truly special ones blaze their own trails rather than follow paths.

Nicklaus’s greatness was rooted in the knowledge that he knew he could never match Palmer’s popularity and personality, so he wasn’t ever going to try and be the next “king”.

His record 18 Major victories and beloved stature as a golf ambassador are proof that he fared quiet well, eh?

This is not to suggest that if McIlroy commits to a similar mindset and tries not to be the next Woods that he will surpass the man whose 14 Majors are second to only Nicklaus. But if McIlroy — who offered a beautiful notice to the game when he said “I’ve really found my passion again for golf” — remains true to himself and allows his personality to flourish, as a man named Palmer did, it will offer him the chance to win plenty and surpass Woods.

Not in Majors won, but in the fans who warmly embrace him.

And who is to say that that won’t benefit the game more?

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