He is the hottest player on the planet, but Rory McIlroy remains remarkably poised and humble, especially for a 23-year-old multi-millionaire with a private jet, a hot, tennis-star girlfriend, and single-name celebrity status, something that it took folks like Cher and Bono years to develop.
He also handles controversy and sticky situations – perceived and real – better than almost any athlete in modern times, and certainly better than any golfer since Arnold Palmer, who could always calm roiling waters with a wink and a smile.
For starters, Rory is the No.1 player in the world, leading the FedEx Cup points race, the frontrunner for Player of the Year, and the successor to Tiger Woods, at least according to Greg Norman.
Norman created something of a manufactured rift this week when he told Fox Sports, "What I’m seeing is that Tiger’s really intimidated by Rory. When have you ever seen him intimidated by another player? Never. But I think he knows his time’s up and that’s normal; these things tend to go in 15-year cycles. Jack took it from Arnold (Palmer). I took it from Jack, Tiger from me and now it looks like Rory’s taking it from Tiger."
Some athletes, especially in today’s immodest culture, would have puffed up and said, "Darn right I intimidate him." Others would have stiffened and deflected the question.
Rory smiled and defused the whole thing with a joke.
At East Lake Golf Club on Wednesday he quipped, "(Tiger’s) got a new nickname for me, actually. He calls me The Intimidator."
He then chuckled and said, "No, how can I intimidate Tiger Woods? I mean, the guy’s got 75 PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. He’s the biggest thing ever in our sport. How could some little 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him? It’s just not possible. I don’t know where (Greg) got that from, but it’s not true."
There wasn’t a hint of sarcasm or intentional irony. All who heard Rory knew how earnest he was being.
He also dealt with a weightier kerfuffle. In an interview with the Daily Mail earlier in the week, Rory rekindled the controversy surrounding what country he will represent at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.
Because of Northern Ireland’s unique political history, athletes can choose whether to compete under the U.K. or Irish banners. Most have chosen the latter, not because of nationalistic allegiance, but because Ireland is smaller and teams are easier to make.
Both countries claim Rory as their own and both want him wearing their colors in Brazil.
"What makes it such an awful position to be in is I have grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella," Rory said. "But the fact is, I’ve always felt more British than Irish. Maybe it was the way I was brought up, I don’t know, but I have always felt more of a connection with the UK than with Ireland. And so I have to weigh that up against the fact that I’ve always played for Ireland, so it is tough. Whatever I do, I know my decision is going to upset some people, but I just hope the vast majority will understand."
Not bloody likely, as the Brits might say.
Realizing the international incident that his comments might cause, Rory took to Twitter to reassure everyone that he hasn’t made a decision and won’t for quite some time.
"I am in an extremely sensitive and difficult position, and I conveyed as much in a recent newspaper interview," Rory wrote. "I am a proud product of Irish golf and the Golfing Union of Ireland and am hugely honoured (sic, in America) to have come from very rich Irish sporting roots, winning Irish Boys, Youths and Amateur titles and playing for Ireland at all levels. I am also a proud Ulsterman who grew up in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. This is my background and always will be…On a personal level, playing in the Olympics would be a huge honour. However, the Games in Rio are still four years away and I certainly won't be making any decisions with regards to participating any time soon."
You might expect him to bristle this week when the subject came up again, or that he might read a prepared statement like a hostage with a ransom note, and then deflect all questions by saying, "I defer to my previous statement."
But he did nothing of the sort. Instead, Rory nodded and smiled and said, "I think it just really hit home with me how important it is for a lot of people and how important my success has been to them. Obviously, I’ve had a lot of support from all sides, from people that call themselves Irish, from Northern Irish, to the whole of the UK, to people over here in the states. I’ve had support from everyone…It would be terrible for me to segregate myself from one of those groups that support me so much."
Everyone who hears him up close walks away with the same feeling: this is one of the most refreshingly honest and genuinely nice athletes we’ve seen in many years.
He is also the favorite to win the FedEx Cup, and as Jim Furyk aptly noted, he will be "a marked man," at the Ryder Cup.
"He’s the number-one player in the world, so he’s going to garner all the attention, as well he should," Furyk said. "He’s right now the present day Tiger Woods where everyone’s eyes are on him."
There's one difference, though. When all eyes were on Tiger, they only saw a sliver of the man. With Rory, you get the whole package.