Commentary

A big, fickle welcome to Rory McIlroy

Fans and the media will be with him all the way … until we all turn against him, that is.

Originally Published: June 22, 2011
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

We're off and running again, this time with Rory McIlroy. The rush to glorify and exalt took just four days, when the main question surrounding the young man went from:

Can he win?

To:

Can he lose?

Damn, this is fun. There's nothing better than breathless hype and wild projection to make us care about something. When it comes to golf, we were getting a little bored, to be honest. With Tiger Woods out of the field, it's hard to get too worked up over Phil Mickelson, a bunch of Europeans and 20 guys named Chip. Seriously, in this sport, a rebel is a guy who forgets to use his salad fork.

[+] EnlargeMcIlroy
AP Photo/Eric GayRory McIlroy played his way out of anonymity forever last weekend.

Then along came Rory. He blew the Masters, which made him a lovable loser with a charming accent and a lot to learn about winning. Then he blew up the field at the U.S. Open, and suddenly we're acting as if we saw it all along.

It's a little head-spinning, probably more for him than us. He's 22 years old and a golf prodigy, which means he's lived a lot less than most 22-year-olds -- which is to say, not much at all. To get that good that fast, these guys generally live more like cloistered monks than any of them are likely to admit. Watching on television, with all the oohing and aahing and polite clapping, viewers at home can sometimes lose sight of that.

But that's all behind young Rory now, because obscurity is over. Lovable loserdom is, too. He's an icon now, the quickest we've created in recent memory, and we do icons better than we do almost anything else.

And there is a recipe. We do our best work when there's an established icon out there -- Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan -- to attach to our icon-in-training. That way, we can create icons and arguments at the same time. What's better than that? We can ride that horse 'til it drops.

This is the essence of being a fan, right? Let's compare Tiger's first Open win, 2000 at Pebble Beach, to McIlroy's at Congressional. Tiger was the only player in the field under par and won by 15 strokes, minus-12 to plus-3, on a far tougher course. Rory set records and was never challenged. Which one was better, and what does Jack Nicklaus think?

We love questions without answers; they prolong the discussion and double the fun. The event takes four days, but the aftermath can last forever.

But there's always someone who's going to get in the way of our fun, right? Someone who's going to show up with a dour look and a corduroy blazer, like he's expecting an NPR convention to break out. "Whoa, slow down there, unwashed masses," this guy says. "Let the young Irishman earn his way into golf's hallowed sanctuary."

To heck with that. Come on in, Rory, to the most unsanctified place any of us knows: The arena of public sports discourse.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesFor better or worse, the media will shape the public's perception of McIlroy from here on out.

The door is always open, so make yourself comfortable. Since you're new here, we'll let you know the ground rules as you enter: We're going to lift you up far beyond reason, use even the thinnest shard of personal biography -- "Look, a golf-loving dad! Just like Tiger!" -- to build the pedestal then jackhammer it out from under you the second you do something that doesn't fit with the myth we created.

The mistakes you make can be personal or professional, even though we won't try to figure out what kind of personal problems you might have until you exhibit them for all the world to see. In other words, we'll call every moment your best moment until we see your worst moment, then we'll forget all about the good ones.

And don't worry: We'll find that worst moment. From the minute you ascend the pedestal, there will be people looking for those worst moments. It's weird, because we have this manic compulsion to call you too good to be true, then an equally manic compulsion to prove you're not.

You probably know something about the last guy we did this to. We built that pedestal for him without looking too closely into whether his personal life matched up to the professional. Come to think of it, he had a similar background to yours: the whole prodigy thing, complete with an appearance on a nationally televised chat show to display the precocious golfing ability.

In fact, when you made your appearance on "The Jerry Kelly Show" as a 9-year-old, the host asked you who your idol was, and you mentioned him by name. "Tiger Woods," you said.

And now you're linked again, for better or worse.

So, Rory, here it comes. Good luck, and remember: We'll be here for you, through thick or thin. And you know what we say to the unfairness of it all: Deal with it. Don't say we didn't provide fair warning.

We make only one promise: It's really, really good while it lasts.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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