ON THE OCCASION of Tiger Woods being named SI's Sportsman of the Year in 1996, the great Gary Smith posed this incisive question: "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-generation golf talent trying to navigate the crushing machinery of superstardom while maintaining the inner peace that his cerebral sport demands. Rory McIlroy deserves plenty of accolades merely for his Tigeresque on-course accomplishments this year: two major championship victories (the British Open at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Valhalla), a World Golf Championship win (Bridgestone), a W at the European tour's flagship event at Wentworth (BMW PGA) and a starring role in Europe's Ryder Cup victory at Gleneagles. But he is my choice for Sportsman 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 the 25-year-old McIlroy. He has grown up in the public eye yet retains the small-town decency that he absorbed in the hamlet of Holywood, Northern Ireland. This year many of the most memorable things McIlroy did occurred off the course.
At the Honda Classic in February he offered a heartfelt apology for his rash decision to walk off in the middle of the second round a year earlier, noting the enlarged perspective that had followed. At Augusta, McIlroy was the first out on Saturday morning and was paired with club member Jeff Knox so he wouldn't have to go as a single; when this unknown amateur outplayed him, McIlroy somehow laughed off the embarrassment. Then, in all seriousness, he said he would consult with Knox on how to putt the treacherous greens, a rare act of humility for a famous jock.
After breaking off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki on May 21, McIlroy could have hidden behind an impersonal statement on his website—Woods's preferred method for interacting with the world—but instead he showed up at a press conference and offered a raw, emotional appraisal of the split. When he has discussed a simmering lawsuit with his former agent, he has been defiant and angry. In all places, and seemingly at all times, McIlroy is never anything other than himself.
Forced to choose sides for the sake of the Olympics, this proud Ulsterman didn't hide the anguish of having to play politics, and he opted to represent Ireland largely as a thank you to the golf union that supported him as an amateur. After winning at Royal Liverpool, McIlroy couldn't help but take a Manchester United fan's swipe at the local football club during the trophy ceremony. In the final round of the PGA Championship he smoothly navigated an awkward moment when the final two groups played together up the 18th hole to beat the dying light; McIlroy won the trophy and then let Phil Mickelson spout off about how the situation should have been handled differently.
McIlroy talks trash on Twitter to his fellow competitors but is unfailingly kind and accommodating to his legion of fans and the people who toil in the shadows at the grand golf courses he visits. His voice catches when he talks about the dead-end jobs his parents worked to support his boyhood golf dreams. He not only doesn't run from his feelings—he shares them. He is imperfect and real and willing to let us see it.
We once celebrated Woods's virtues too, and who knows what the future will reveal. But for now we are blessed to witness McIlroy's artistry and passion and the sheer joy he exudes in having very nearly mastered his craft. Beyond the victories, what made this such a monumental season is that McIlroy has offered the hope that the machine doesn't always have to win.
PGA Tour Wins
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED