10:00pm

Tue July 12, 2011
Sweetness And Light

New Winners Face Pressure To Be Brilliant. Again.

Precocity is always in vogue in sports. Or anyway, the media love to cuddle up with precocity, to present us the next great thing. A new phenom can't merely be promising. No, he obviously must be the best there ever was.

And here comes Rory McIlroy now, winner of exactly three professional tournaments, a prefabricated legend, already being carried off to golf heaven.

Young McIlroy will be playing in the British Open, starting Thursday, fresh off his ridiculously easy win in the U.S. Open. And, of course, if the wee lad doesn't win the British or other prominent championships, he'll be dismissed for "not living up to the hype" — as if somehow, he, not the media, was responsible for shouldering him with hype.

Of course, yes, sometimes the blessed newcomer does indeed deliver on the ballyhoo. Both Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods turned out to be everything they were promised to be as adolescents. But more often it's a case of a nice athlete who just developed early on. Sergio Garcia, for example, was going to be golf's continental archangel. He's turned out merely to be, in that grand British jargon, a useful player.

I remember being with Nancy Lopez way back when she was 21, just about McIlroy's age, and was winning her fifth tournament in a row. The euphoria was palpable. But that turned out to be the apex. Lopez had a wonderful career, but she won only three majors, never a U.S. Open. Likewise, athletes in other sports, like Boris Becker in tennis or Mike Tyson in boxing, had championship careers but never achieved the majesty unfairly accorded them when first they burst into our consciousness.

One thing in McIlroy's future favor is that he's not built on premature strength. Rather, his promise is found in grace, in the sublime beauty of his game. But the impatience to accord him greatness is accelerated by the sport's need to find a replacement for the dishonored Woods. McIlroy is thus twice cursed. He is held up not only as Woods' successor but also as his polar opposite. We ask him not only to breathe rarefied air for himself but to be a breath of fresh air for us.

The pressure placed upon him is further illustrated by the fact that Americans, who are so loath to embrace foreign athletes, seem just as enamored of McIlroy as are Europeans. Good grief, it took Americans a dozen years to give the German Dirk Nowitzki his fair due. But everyone already loves Rory. And too many already expect too much of him. Greatness is hard enough to handle. Harder still is to somehow manage to accept the potential mantle of greatness before you've even been able to put it around your own shoulders.

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