Rory McIlroy: It's Not The Feat, It's The Humility

Originally published on June 20, 2011 4:59 pm

Thank you, Rory McIlroy. Now I have a new rooting interest.

In case you weren't watching, this poodle-haired 22-year-old from Northern Ireland ripped the lungs out of the field this weekend at golf's U.S. Open.

Those who don't care about golf may not read past this paragraph — though I urge you to do so. He will be on your TV and your teenage daughters will take notice.

But for hackers and scratch handicappers alike, what happened at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C., was transcendent. For some of us, it filled a void that has been empty since Tiger Woods' recent series of unplayable lies.

Because a star is born. And maybe not just a star. Maybe a supernova.

It's not just the quality of play, which was superb. Like Tiger at Pebble Beach in 2000, McIlroy set or tied 12 U.S. Open records.

It's the potential ... and the personality. Unlike Tiger, the huge American golf audience barely knows who this kid is. His success is not preordained. And so far, he's humble as shepherd's pie.

Now, here are some golfers who have truly HELD my attention in nearly 50 years of watching (and on the course, despoiling) the game: Arnold Palmer. Jack Nicklaus. Tom Watson. Lee Trevino. Seve Ballesteros. Woods, of course. Annika Sorenstam.

And I've had brief flirtations with so many others: Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Chi-Chi Rodriguez, Hale Irwin, Calvin Peete, Fuzzy Zoeller. That list goes on.

I still hold out hope for real greatness from the noble and likeable but endlessly frustrating Phil Mickelson. The still to be fully realized talent and showman Anthony Kim. Or even a flash of greatness from Michelle Wie. (I hold out hope, but I do not hold my breath.)

But here comes Rory, shambling down the fairway like a slouching teenager you'd like to reprimand, except that he's so endearing that in the end, you cut him a break. Some much closer to him see "cocksure" and "almost arrogant" in that walk. Apparently his mother did, as well. I see young, loose, limber and slightly goofy. Not all great golfers are great athletes. The younger Tiger I could see playing cornerback in the NFL. On the other hand, Ray Floyd won three majors playing with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Or so it seemed.

But this is about Rory: To offer some perspective, the past two people who won the U.S Open at 22 or younger were Nicklaus and Bobby Jones, the iconic southern gentleman of golf lore.

A freak occurrence? Nope, this isn't his first rodeo. Just this season, at The Masters in Augusta, Ga., he held the third-round lead before falling apart so completely in the final round that even members of the media took pity on him.

His response then — interviewed greenside, immediately after the worst round of his life — was that it might "build character." Oh, man. You have to love the TV golf culture for insisting that some of us could actually strive to be what many of our heroes once seemed to be.

I scoffed.

He also said to the always amusing golf commentator David Feherty: "If that's the worst thing that ever happens to me, it's not so bad, is it?"

I snorted.

And then he came back this weekend and gave one of the great performances of all time.

Sunday, he said: "Augusta was a very valuable experience for me ... I learned a few things about myself and my game."

He LEARNED. At 22. Who'd a thunk it?

Notice to all who dwell and prosper in today's celebrity culture: Actions speak louder than words. Way louder. In this case, eight strokes louder. Twice as far under par as anyone else in the field.

But you don't have to listen to me root for Rory. Remember that guy Nicklaus? Turns out he has his eye on Rory, too. They've had lunch several times since the debacle at Augusta. Here's Jack's take, as heard on NBC during Sunday's final round:

"He's got moxie .. he's humble when he needs to be humble. He's confident when he needs to be confident."

As he finished up this magical weekend the huge crowd was on Rory's side, too. He nearly rewarded 20,000 huddled around the 10th green Sunday with a hole-in-one, missing by inches. They stayed to watch him finish, to watch him kiss the trophy and to hear him interviewed on the green by Bob Costas, who asked the predictable questions and got some of the reliable answers.

Yes, it was unlikely that the tiny United Kingdom province of Northern Ireland would produce two U.S. Open champs in a row (countryman Graeme McDowell, who pushed through the crowd for a massive manhug with Rory Sunday, won last year at Pebble Beach.) Yes it was a great Father's Day gift for his dad, but let's not forget Mum, back watching the telly at home. Yeah, sure "a lot of pints of Guinness will be goin' down" as the result of this victory.

Then Costas got to the real point for all those of us here in the States waitin' and anticipatin' for The Next Tiger: "Will you play more in the U.S. after this?"

"I think I might have to," Rory said.

The crowd at Congressional roared. So did I.

Now, golf is a funny game and cleats of glory all too often turn into feet of clay.

But I'm rooting for Rory. Or as Jack Nicklaus — now the Golden Bear, but once the still up-and-rising Fat Kid — said, when you see a great young talent like this start to blossom:

"You want to follow their career and wish them well."

Yes, Jack. Yes, you do.

Todd Holzman is supervising senior editor for NPR Digital News. His golf handicap is his swing.

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