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Rory McIlroy and the perils of greatness

Alex Dimond March 7, 2012

Watching the final group putt out at the end of the final round of the Honda Classic on Sunday, it wouldn't have been hard to guess which player was about to win the tournament and, in the process, be named the new world No. 1.

The tall, angular Harris English looked too uncomfortable, too stilted as he finished his round to be the man poised to claim those twin honours. The first of his playing partners, Rory McIlroy, simply looked too young.

By that process of elimination, it must have been the man with the big grin on his face, Tom Gillis, who was on the verge of legendary status. Right?

Wrong. As we all know by now, it is McIlroy who now resides at the top of the game's order - after a two-shot victory in Florida that saw him calmly hold off the belated surges of both Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood.

Gillis, in contrast, had simply holed a birdie putt to finish alongside Woods in a tie for second - helping the 43-year-old to rise to the lofty heights of 157th in the world.

So why was he the one emitting the feeling of pure exhilaration? McIlroy's fist-pump was an outward sign of his achievement, but it carried with it an underlying sense of another box ticked, another goal accomplished. Gillis, in contrast, had just achieved his best ever finish on the PGA Tour - indeed, pretty much his best ever finish on any tour during any part of his varied and difficult professional career.

"I'm your prototypical journeyman," Gillis acknowledged on Friday. "I've been doing it almost 22 years now, played all over the world, 26 countries, played The European Tour, Asia, South Africa.

"So I think I'm probably my own worst enemy at the end of the day but I'm a lot better than I used to be. I would say, yeah, I'm a late bloomer."

The contrast with McIlroy could hardly be starker. The Northern Irishman has been the best player of his age group since, well, since he and his peers were old enough to measure that sort of thing. His progression - amateur sensation, successful transition to the pro ranks, tournament contender, major champion - has been as steady as it has been exactly how the blueprint would have had it.

McIlroy is a supremely naturally talented golfer. He's had setbacks, but in general his rise has been one smooth acceleration.

The 22-year-old talked a lot to the media in the immediate run-up to his impending coronation about how, ever since he was about ten, he had dreamed of being a major champion and world No. 1. He talked about what it would be like to achieve that dream, how incredible it would be. But you sense that is not strictly true.

Yes, it would be incredible for you or I to become both those things - primarily because it would be so unexpected. For us, just like the 10-year-old McIlroy, becoming world No. 1 (or winning the US Open by eight shots) is not a plausible outcome. But for the 22-year-old McIlroy, it was so attainable it had almost become the next item on the checklist. Yes, it was prestigious - but it shouldn't have been unexpected to anyone who had seen his career over the last few years.

  • "The job market wasn't very good. Didn't have a whole lot to offer them to be quite honest with you. So I thought, geez, I'd better turn around and go back out there and see if I have anything left. It happens."

    - Tom Gillis

  • "This is my fifth full year on tour I think. So, yeah, it's not like [getting to world No. 1 has] just been right away. It's taken a little bit of time, but you know, it's fantastic to be here."

    - Rory McIlroy

Gillis, in contrast, had achieved something McIlroy wouldn't even think twice about. But, to him, after seeing his own promising career take unexpected turn after undesirable turn, it signified something he thought would never be his.

Earning almost enough money to guarantee his tour card for 2013 already, Gillis had suddenly struck upon something he never thought he'd have - job security. Just six years ago, he was thinking about quitting the sport altogether - except he didn't even have anything to quit it for.

"Would have been 2006," Gillis recalled. "I played out here 2005. I played in Europe for five years, and then I played the PGA Tour in 2003. I was out in 2004 for an injury. Played here in 2005. Didn't keep my card and thought, 'Geez, now I have to go to the Nationwide', and it was a real … I just never got my head around it. Finished outside the Top 100 out there. And then I missed in the Tour School.

"So I thought, well, 'Geez, I'm 38 now, what am I going to do?'

"The job market wasn't very good. Didn't have a whole lot to offer them to be quite honest with you. So I thought I'd better turn around and go back out there and see if I have anything left. It happens."

McIlroy has never really needed to deal with such a basic crisis of confidence. His career to date, bar one nine-hole meltdown at Augusta National, has basically been a seamless ascent towards greatness.

He talked about achieving his 'dream' on Sunday, but after the event it didn't really sound like something that had kept him awake at night. His approach to it seemed almost ... methodical.

"With what could happen after today, with being able to go to the top of the world rankings, it meant a lot to go out there and produce the golf that I needed to do to get the job done," McIlroy, in full-on meet-the-media mode, said on Sunday. "It was always a dream of mine to become the world No. 1 and the best player in the world or whatever you want to call it.

"But I didn't know that I would be able to get here this quickly. I mean … I feel this is my fifth full year on tour I think. So, yeah, it's not like it's just been right away. It's taken a little bit of time, but you know, it's fantastic to be here at the minute and hopefully I can hold onto it for a little longer."

Taken a little bit of time?! Talk to Tom Gillis about just how long things can take. But McIlroy is not impatient, simply exceptional. Some world No. 1s have been delighted to reach that pinnacle of the game, only a very select few have viewed it somewhat ancillary to their primary aims of winning majors and becoming a great of the game.

The previous one in that latter category was Woods - and McIlroy is most certainly in his image. Both men were acutely aware that, if they fulfil all their ambitions, being world No. 1 will come some way down their list of accomplishments. Luke Donald, the world No. 1 McIlroy replaced, was always immensely proud to be the top dog in the game - but even he recognised a major victory would mean more in the grand scheme of things.

Blessed with a rare talent, McIlroy wants more and more major titles. Much like Woods, however, you wonder if, with such lofty ambitions, there is any such thing as a small victory. With his rise to this point, to an extent even winning more majors would be expected. Small victories, like the one Tom Gillis experienced on Sunday, aren't a possibility for McIlroy - not on the golf course at least.

"It's kind of a cool story," Gillis himself reflected. "I like it because you dig deep and you move forward, and it's a good example to young kids, just never give up and keep believing.

"Sometimes it's hard to do that in this game, because it seems like the game is built to tear you down to some extent."

McIlroy has moved above all that. But maybe he should speak to Woods - a man who expresses such an obvious yet curious dissatisfaction with his lot in life. Being great at something leads to expectations of great performances. Anything less is a failure. That leaves little room for genuine surprise and excitement.

McIlroy and Gillis are obviously on different career paths. But, as last weekend hinted at, there are positives and negatives to both of those.


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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk