So, Rory McIlroy now understands that the mandatory minimum for consideration as BBC Sports Personality of the Year for 2015 is to win all four of golf’s grand slams, set a course record at Augusta, and perhaps throw in some Nobel laureate-worthy charity work while he is at it. Oh, and to turn up on the red carpet with a dog.
That McIlroy was vanquished by Lewis Hamilton at the Beeb’s Glasgow jamboree, not by a hair but by a margin of over 80,000 votes after one of the most garlanded campaigns golf has ever known, offers a galling reflection on his sport’s place in public perception. Either that, or tennis starlet Caroline Wozniacki, the Northern Irishman’s jilted ex-fiancée, amassed an exceedingly large phone bill by repeatedly calling in to ensure his defeat.
It would also be intriguing to study a breakdown of how the canine-loving constituency voted in the Lewis versus Rory show, given that the abiding image from Sunday night’s ceremony was of a velvet-suited Hamilton turning up flanked by his bulldog Roscoe in a whirl of rap star-chic. In a mawkish end-of-season montage that is less a serious gauge of sporting accomplishment than a straight popularity contest, these cosmetic details matter.
For what else, short of winning the Ryder Cup on his own, could McIlroy have done? He won two major titles, including a maiden Claret Jug for his four rounds of peerless front-running at Royal Liverpool, and a World Golf Championship – all in the space of 21 days. The brilliant young American Rickie Fowler, left in the Ulsterman’s contrails all year, called it the finest stretch of golf he had ever seen.
McIlroy also produced an inspired turn to help Europe retain the Samuel Ryder Trophy at Gleneagles, thrashing Fowler 5&4, and won the European Tour’s blue-riband event at Wentworth in the very same week he called off his wedding to Wozniacki. No amount of emotional turmoil could stymie the blossoming of his jaw-dropping talent. He is a golfing nonpareil, a phenomenon, the deserved and undisputed world No 1. Predictions that he could one day outstrip even Tiger Woods’ haul of 14 majors are far from hyperbolic.
But for the British public, it was still not enough. Granted, McIlroy was not helped by the timing of his triumphs, already consigned to a mid-summer haze by Hamilton’s victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix six weeks ago. In 2012 he also fell victim to the capricious nature of the sporting calendar, with his stunning win at the USPGA Championship a mere footnote by dint of its coincidence with Britain’s Olympic gold rush in London.
The sheer scale of his shock defeat hints that there is something deeper at play, though. It is not as if we can hold McIlroy’s tax-exile status, which he enjoys out in his gilded mansion in West Palm Beach, against him, when Hamilton has deftly avoided contributions to the public purse since the age of 22 by claiming residence in Switzerland and Monaco.
No, we must conclude that what sabotaged McIlroy’s credentials was golf itself. Who in the sport was championing his cause to win with the same fervour that the world of dressage propelled Charlotte Dujardin to a surprising fourth place? And there is a more fundamental problem. For as McIlroy himself admitted on the Today programme yesterday, the grassroots game is dying: “Gone are the days that you can spend five or six hours on the golf course. Nowadays it’s hard to leave your phone [for that time], everything’s so instant.” The remedy, he said, could well be to “speed the game up”. Sadly, for all McIlroy’s wondrous achievements, many people of his age just cannot seem to link the words “golf” and “personality”.