• Out of Bounds

Royal recognition for major success a mistake

ESPN staff
January 4, 2012
Rory McIlroy MBE - an award too soon? © Getty Images
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2011 couldn't end without Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke getting a final bit of good news - the cherry on top of the proverbial cake that was their respective major wins last year.

McIlroy, who claimed the US Open in June, and Clarke, who won the Open Championship a month later, followed fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell in receiving recognition in the Queen's New Year's honours list, when it was announced just before 2012 arrived.

McIlroy received an MBE - just as McDowell did for his US Open success a year ago - while Clarke, who endured well-publicised heartbreak in the years leading to an unlikely success at Royal St George's, was awarded an OBE.

"I am delighted to be named in the Queen's New Year honours list," McIlroy said of the announcement. "It is quite humbling to be included in such a list of worthy recipients.

"Many people on the honours list have made huge personal sacrifices and contributed significantly to society during their lives. I feel very fortunate to be in their company."

Intentionally or not, McIlroy hits on the crux of the matter. While no doubt some of the names on the list "earned" their MBEs, OBEs and even KBEs by virtue of being born into a life of privilege, or through donating a vast some of money to the political party of the moment, those nominated from the general public often gained the Queen's approval for actions above and beyond what society might expect of them.

Those awardees put time and effort into selfless work of one form or another, into helping others achieve what would be impossible without an altruistic helping hand. What do golfers do that is anywhere near that description? Hit a little white ball around a field sometimes (as McIlroy dryly notes in his Twitter profile)?

According to the official communication, McIlroy and Clarke received their respective awards for "services to golf". What services are those, exactly? Both men are fine players and reputable men, but they are little different in that regard to their fellow professionals who have gone unrecognised - except for the fact they have just won a major. Yet someone has to do that every year - it can hardly be called a 'service', more a perk of the job … or a fitting reward for all that work on the driving range.

A nod from HRH in the New Year's honours list should not be part of the package of rewards that come after winning a major championship, yet that is increasingly what it has become. It should be awarded based on different criteria, not simply part and parcel of reaching the peak of the sport in a given year.

At the very least, major winners should have to wait to receive their recognition until their career is over and their body of work is complete and ready for evaluation. McIlroy may well end up winning enough majors to match or surpass Sir Nick Faldo, who eventually became a knight for his six triumphs, so perhaps he should have been made to wait to see where in the pyramid his achievements rank - rather than leaving open the possibility that his increasing list of achievements will see him upgrading his royal honour every few years like a new phone contract.

Faldo, of course, actually did contribute a genuine service to golf - not so much in the many golf courses he designed, but with the junior series he organised and backed to enable the next generation a better opportunity to enhance their skills and sample competitive action.

A graduate of that system, McIlroy's impact on the game and influence within it may eventually enable him to make a similar contribution to the sport during a later phase of his career. If he does, then perhaps that should warrant royal recognition.

That is not to say McIlroy and Clarke are undeserving, but that the system is wrong. Chris Hoy perhaps deserves his knighthood, but giving it to the multiple Olympic champion while he is still looking to extend that record hardly makes much sense. Simply giving honours to those sports stars who reach the pinnacle of their field renders them meaningless - that's the point of sporting competition in the first place. Royal honours should also be a tribute to some other aspect of their career.

On the same list as McIlroy and Clarke when it was announced was former Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis. Widely disliked during his tenure at Villa Park, multi-millionaire Ellis has increasingly used much of his vast wealth to fund hospitals and other charity work that benefits young people.

That's the sort of activity that should be rewarded in the New Year's honours list. Winning a major - or any sporting event? Not so much. The New Year's honours list should be for more than just winning.

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