This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
Eighteen years ago, on the occasion of Tiger Woods being named SI’s Sportsman of the Year, the great Gary Smith typed these famous words: “Who will win? The machine…or the youth who has just entered its maw?”
It took a while, but we all learned the answer to that one.
Now along comes another once-in-a-lifetime talent, trying to navigate the crushing machinery of superstardom while somehow maintaining the inner peace that his solitary sport demands. Rory McIlroy deserves plenty of accolades merely for his Woodsian on-course accomplishments this year: two major championship victories, a World Golf Championship win, a W at the European tour’s flagship event at Wentworth and a starring role at the Ryder Cup.
But he is my choice for Sportsman of the Year because he did all of this while battling The Machine with uncommon grace. No brand-name athlete in any sport is as honest and unguarded as McIlroy. Days after breaking off his engagement to tennis starlet Caroline Wozniacki he showed up a press conference and offered a raw, emotional appraisal of a broken heart. When he has discussed a simmering lawsuit with a former agent, McIlroy is defiant and angry. Forced to choose sides for the sake of the Olympics, this Northern Irishman didn’t hide the anguish of having to play politics. After winning the British Open at Royal Liverpool he couldn’t help but take the piss out of the local football fans at the trophy ceremony. McIlroy talks trash on Twitter to his fellow competitors but is unfailingly kind and accommodating to his legion of fans and the little people who toil in the shadows at the grand golf courses he visits. He woos models at nightclubs; his voice catches when he talks about the dead-end jobs his parents worked to support his boyhood golf dreams. In all places, and seemingly at all times, McIlroy is never anything other than himself. Class and authenticity are two of the rarest commodities in sport, and he has both in spades.
Of course, we once celebrated Woods’s virtues, too. The machine never rests, and McIlroy could yet disappear down its gullet. But for now we are blessed to get to enjoy, unfettered, McIlroy’s artistry and passion and the sheer joy he exudes in having very nearly mastered his craft. What makes this such a monumental season is that he has offered the hope that the machine doesn’t always have to win.