The present-tense joy of Rory McIlroy
We seem ill-equipped to communicate the essence of his U.S. Open performance
Short this week, and desperate not to add another shovelful of nonsense to the mountain of same already under way. Our national sporting press has lost its mind. Happiness apparently makes us light-headed rather than light-hearted.
Regular readers of this column will recall that I've written about Rory McIlroy before, here, on the occasion of his Masters "catastrophe" in April. Barely 10 weeks ago, I made note of the fact that failure is our natural human state and that: "To exceed, to transcend, to excel, to make something beautiful or lasting is a singularity. This is how and why we make legends and heroes."
Which is exactly what came to pass this past weekend at the U.S. Open with young Mr. McIlroy's historic victory.
For several days as he lapped the field, no one in the media center seemed to know what to say or what to do. Like bookies or Russian novelists, we calculated and recalculated the odds of another "disaster." We flung poor Rory back in time in a hand-painted necktie and plus-fours and measured him against Bobby Jones. We hurled him forward, 18 majors won, into the future as the rock-solid lock to break Jack Nicklaus' record. To do so, we got Pere Nicklaus himself on the phone.
The Golden Age Bear was, as ever, gracious and patient and sounded no more than normally amused when asked to hop in the time machine and provide a benediction for his own metaphorical killer. I suspect we get Jack on the phone these days because if he appeared on camera every time he is asked to predict the arc of the next shooting star, he would have trouble not rolling his eyes or stifling a yawn.
Additionally, Tiger Woods' absence, endlessly written and spoken of as a "vacuum," did aptly and indeed create an airless atmosphere of laboratory-quality suck in columns and blogs worldwide.
Because sports writing and sports television thrive on the past and on the future, but struggle merely to describe the present. We're likewise well-tuned to deliver sadness or disappointment or cynicism. All due respect to my lunatic colleagues, but one thing among many for which our national media apparatus is utterly unprepared is joy.
Which is too bad, because what sports most importantly provide us all, and in furious abundance, are lessons of the second chance. Occasions for happiness. Redemption. In fact, in no area of human endeavor are mythological second chances as plentiful as they are in sports. Rory McIlroy grabbed this one with both hands. (Pro tip: Reverse overlap.)
Television can cheat that second chance because it flattens what it touches, literally and figuratively, even the remarkable, even surprise, even joy. It imposes itself. Mediates. This can't really be helped, but maybe it can be compensated for. Maybe the lower-third crawl across the bottom of your screen should read: Don't trust us too much. Resist our predictions. Watch the event without trying to decode the event, without trying to locate it within some swaying framework of cliché. When we start to analyze, remember please that to dissect a thing requires us to kill it. The first casualty of sports journalism is spontaneity. The next is anarchy. Then joy.
Be mindful of that.
For a few days one June, playing golf at the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy was untouchable. Unreachable. Indescribable.
This was true whether or not he ever wins another golf tournament. Whether or not it happened to be Father's Day. Whether or not the course was hard or soft or he's a nice guy or a bad guy or a role model.
For a few days, he was an artist in perfect command of his instrument. For a few days, he made it look easy. For a few days, he played golf as if barefoot. For a few days, he was a poet. For a few days, he was beautiful.
"To exceed, to transcend, to excel, to make something beautiful or lasting is a singularity. This is how and why we make legends and heroes."
You saw it. We all saw it.
And yet somehow, for a few days, Rory McIlroy played golf like no one was watching.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.