What is it that defines the greatest sporting spectacles? Is it competition or coronation? It made you gasp as Frankel laid waste the field to win the 2000 Guineas by a mile, but watching Mickael Barzalona drive Pour Moi from last to first in the Derby and take Carlton House in the last stride of the race could make a strong man weep. What was the greater Wimbledon final — the epic between Federer and Nadal in 2008, or a massacre such as when John McEnroe destroyed the Kiwi Chris Lewis in the early 80s? Well, I know which I’d prefer to watch. You looked on in awe as the all-conquering West Indies ruled the cricket world for 15 years from 1975, but by far the most memorable moment of that era was Botham’s heroics to seize an improbable victory over Australia in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.
So Rory McIlroy’s sublime achievement in brushing aside the opposition to win the US Open may have been one of the most uncompetitive, almost unexciting, of recent golfing majors, but it marked one of those moments that can define a sportsman forever: miss it and he’s finished, take it and he’s made. This was Rory’s moment — and he seemed to grasp that potentially intimidating fact. Better still, he was inspired by it.
To win a US Open at 22 years old is a great triumph, to win it by eight shots is extraordinary, to be the first man to shoot such low scores ever in the history of the event speaks for itself. But the backstory makes McIlroy’s win all the more remarkable. At Augusta this spring, leading as he went into the last round, he shot a disastrous ten over par and threw away the prospect of the green jacket. Personally, I was never convinced that ‘choking’ was the right word for his unravelling. Certainly, it was far too early to label him a choker. Can’t a catastrophic defeat ever be just that? Must it always be deemed a personal failing? As Boris Becker liked to point out when he lost a tennis match, nobody had died.
Anyway, we can leave that to the shrinks. For the moment we can just sit back and enjoy Rory’s pure long iron play. But there’s no doubt McIlroy would have known that one more slip-up now could have been disastrous. Instead, he played with total belief. There was something boyish about his confidence, but steely about his conviction. It’s a delicious combination.
McIlroy has always played with a positive swagger. How marvellous it would be for golf, after the unsmiling supremacy of Tiger Woods, if he were to be a champion of a different kind. The manner in which the American galleries took to him as an instant favourite is testament to his ability to communicate joy. Fans have a habit of being right. They know that there is more to sport than just the winning, that the manner of the victory matters too. Instinctive, brisk, untroubled, fun-loving, mischievous, and seriously gifted, Rory McIlroy could be one of the next decade’s great entertainers.
Some rather preposterous pursed-lippery last week over goings-on at Royal Ascot where some rough-hewn types were pictured menacing each other with a broken bottle of Bolly. The truth of course is that whereas the royal enclosure at Ascot is one of the most carefully tiered units of society since the court of Rameses II, outside the enclosure it is a very different story. There the rule of law has long vanished and roaming free are men and women you wouldn’t want to meet on a very bright day, let alone on a dark night. Morning-suited or not, the good are trampled underfoot, greed and ugliness hold thrall and violence is just a smirk away. It’s a wonder the body count has stayed so low.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at The Times.