Rory McIlroy would deserve to be Sportsman of the Year strictly for his on-the-course accomplishments: four victories to ascend to number one in the World Ranking; topping the European and PGA Tour money lists with over $8 million; leading Europe to a historic comeback at the Ryder Cup; and, most importantly, winning a second major championship at age 23, which puts him ahead of Tiger Woods's pace. But what makes McIlroy such a wonderful ambassador is the grace, humility and sheer likeability he has displayed while taking possession of an entire sport.
"He's very grounded and people can relate to him. He's remains very approachable, very happy-go-lucky, just a normal kid from Northern Ireland with a great talent," says McIlroy's friend and countryman Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ. "He certainly doesn't have that aloofness that a lot of athletes have around the world."
Justin Rose, McIlroy's Ryder Cup teammate, adds, "He has a good energy about him, a good vibe. The biggest thing is he's respectful. He understands his position in the game. He understands who's come before him."
And yet, from Hogan to Floyd to Faldo to Woods, many of the game's best players have been ornery cusses who display an unusual selfishness even in a sport of loners. A couple of weeks ago, I asked McIlroy if he can remain number one and not fundamentally change who he is.
"Of course!" he said in his boyish lilt. "I've done a good job so far, I think."
Much of the credit goes to his parents, who worked four jobs between them to allow a young Rory to chase his dreams. He has held on to a larger perspective through his first, intoxicating tastes of fame and fortune. Many athletes write checks to charity, which is certainly admirable, but McIlroy has signed on as an ambassador to UNICEF and last year traveled to Haiti to experience first-hand the country's devastation.
"It's just given me so much perspective," he says. "It was an eye-opening experience just to realize how lucky [I am]. Even if I didn't play golf, just to go to school, to have clean water, to take a shower in the morning....just the basic necessities of life we take for granted, those kids in Haiti haven't had for two years. Only one in two go to school, there was a huge outbreak of cholera when I was there...
"For me it was a life-changing experience. If it wasn't for that I might not have won the U.S. Open the week after. I was leading the tournament and it didn't seem like that big a deal because of what I witnessed the week before. It calmed me down a bit and put things in perspective."
McIlroy has a chance to be an agent of change due to his outsized accomplishments. It all starts with the sweetest swing this side of Sam Snead. If Woods's action is controlled violence, McIlroy's is pure poetry.
"I play a lot of practice rounds with Rory and sometimes I walk off the 18th green and think, 'Why did I just do that?'" says McDowell. "He makes the game look too easy -- he can make you feel a little overwhelmed and a little bad about yourself when you play a few holes with him."
All the pieces are in place for McIlroy to become a crossover superstar: transcendent talent, a winning personality, a name that's fun to say, a famous girlfriend (tennis player Caroline Wozniacki). Says Rose, "They love him in America, obviously they love him in Europe, and he's huge in China as well, so I guess he's got all corners of the globe."
At last month's BMW Masters, outside Shanghai, the ardor for McIlroy was such that he was escorted around the grounds by a six-person security detail. These gents looked like a displaced boy band, with their spiky hair and uniform of black suit, black shirt, black tie. When McIlroy stopped to sign autographs, the hired muscle's primary job was to lean into the metal barriers to prevent them from falling over due to the surging fans. Watching one teenaged girl dissolve into tears when she got an autographed ball, McIlroy's agent Conor Ridge muttered, "It's like the bloody Beatles."
A young woman in the crowd, Cai Ying, spoke just enough English to perfectly capture McIlroy's appeal: "Rory is my younger brother. He is a nice person. I love him so much."