“So, George, where did it all go wrong?” asked the hotel bellboy who delivered champagne to Best’s room and found him entertaining a scantily-clad Miss World on a bed covered with his winnings from the casino the night before. The now infamous tale captures the enigma and legend that was George Best, that great footballer from Northern Ireland and Manchester United. A winner of two league titles and the European Cup (Champions League) in 1968. In a brilliant but all too brief career given that Best chose to retire at the ridiculous age of 28. With the world still at his feet.
Best was one of a number of sporting legends to emanate from Northern Ireland and who sprung onto the world stage. Some of the fulfilling their potential and others who - like Best - did so but fell short of perhaps their true potential in the pantheon of sport. Alex Higgins did so in snooker winning world title on two occasions - albeit a decade apart – in 1972 and 1982. A flamboyant snooker player he was named Hurricane due to the speed of his play not unlike Best - in so far as alcoholism affected his life – making him a tabloid story for most of his life rather the talented snooker player he was. The total contrast to fellow countryman Denis Taylor who beat Steve Davis in 1985 and who to this day still is the steady as a BBC commentator.
At times if seems to be the way Northern Ireland likes their sports stars if you add the names of Norman Whiteside, Darren Clarke or Eddie Irvine. However, it cannot be true algorithm when balanced with the likes of Barry McGuigan, Dame Mary Peters, or Pat Jennings. Just to name just a few. Yet it leads to the very question of where in that list will Rory Mcilroy be when he reflects on his career and the what might have been – following after another disastrous week in the US Open at Shinnecock Hills last week. A golfing wizard since his birth and a gifted at the game he probably fails to realise at times how talented he is. Given he has always been capable of doing magical things with a bag of clubs.
That talent coined with a grit and determination of a Tiger Woods, competitiveness of Jack Nicklaus and work ethic of Arnold Palmer, McIlroy would have set greater standards. Perhaps fulfilling the promise, he showed ever since he could walk and his rapid progress through the amateur ranks, Walker Cup, Junior Ryder Cup in 2004 and then the professional game. An assumed trajectory since his arrival in 2008 that under his own terms looked as if the Holywood man would wrote his own script in the game. His first PGA Tour win at Quail Hollow in 2010 coming at the age of 21 and surprising none of those outside his immediate following. But perhaps it was the manner in which he slayed the field on that Sunday - with a final round 62 - that woke up the greater golf world.
Then Rory’s rich promise then took him to hold the lead at the 2011 Masters for three days and head into the back nine at Augusta on that Sunday floating easily at the top of the leader board. When suddenly a rush of blood to the head saw him rip a driver from his bag and slam the ball down the left side of the tenth fairway almost out of bounds. In an instant the infallibility of youth was laid bare for all watching. A sense of tragedy brought to the three days achievements as Rory's round unfolded in front of millions. It was the Sunday that the leader of the tournament began to de-combust. The Major dream disintegrating in moment with caddie JP Fitzgerald helpless, as were Rory’s parents, Chubby and others. The day making the wrong type of history with a round of eighty strokes.
Naturally for the next few months Rory became invisible with every manner of expert predicting a doomsday scenario following his Augusta collapse. Who could have thought otherwise about as the Green jacket leaked from within his own very grasp. A chance few golfers even see in a life time but in a game littered with names of golfers who never made it at Augusta: Lee Trevino, Peter Thompson, Greg Norman, Nick price and Ernie Els. So, no shame in that really as there were other majors to be chased. Albeit that Sunday in Augusta would make it a tougher road to travel. Then after a few months McIlroy showed up at Congressional, quietly, avoiding the spotlight, sticking to his pattern and looking up as little as possible. This was after all the first major since The Masters.
Then with a margin of eight shots Rory McIlroy stormed the U.S. Open at record pace to become the first player to reach 13 under and the first to card a 72-hole aggregate score of 268. Beating records previously held by Jack Nicklaus at Baltusrol in 1980, Lee Janzen also at Baltusrol thirteen years later; Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000, and Jim Furyk at Olympia Fields in 2003. More importantly McIlroy became the youngest winner since Bobby Jones in 1923. In fact, by 2012, McIlroy was well-placed to match the major winning feats of Nicklaus and Woods had his own win rate not faded. Now on his way to 30 years of age next May, Rory has now slipped through a couple of seasons where he has not been in a major mix for a while. As Woods career proves, leaving all the winning to later years becomes harder when injuries start to take their toll. Already that Nicklaus major record looks unreachable for even Woods.
Rory’s win at PGA Championship win at Kiawah Island is now six years ago, and his last major four years ago at The Open and that first title win at Quail Hollow now back further. Albeit he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this year and was Tour Championship in 2016, this weekend’s inclement weather in New York state certainly ended another major assault despite all the great preparations. The winning streak, hunger or good fortune now seems to have abandoned McIlroy and so the question is can he get it back like Woods. Although in Tiger’s case you could argue that his overbearing Father gave the young Woods a need to win that is still visible today - despite all the reconstructive surgery. In Rory’s case the natural talent doesn’t seed the same ambition or work ethic. Or at least that how it seems from this distance,
In addition, Rory has brought on many changes for himself by needing club’s after Nike got out of the club business, a high profile fallout with his management company Horizon Sports; then a change to his long serve caddie for a friend and his recent marriage in Ashford Castle. Each one of which, in themselves would be enough to affect any golfers form in their own right by becoming added distraction. But coming together and self-infected for the most part must have affected his concentration levels.
Which maybe the difference between being very good and the greatest – and more than just natural talent. Perhaps it takes a greater will, stringer discipline and a ferocious focus to match the greatest names in golf. So, at twenty-five years of age Rory was one of the few talents that could have filled that void when the indomitable Woods stepped back. But now that gap has been filled with the next batch such as Jordan Spieth, Brook Koepka, John Rahm. However, when McIlroy won his second golf major title at 23 years and three months, he was the fifth youngest player ever to do so in the history of the game, and joined an elite club that includes Young Tom Morris, Gene Sarazen, John McDermott and the Seve Ballesteros. One wonders whether McIlroy’s best days are behind him.
So Rory, where did is all go wrong?