For whatever reason, there’s a significant portion of Irish society that just can’t warm to Rory McIlroy. Some years back, as a fledgling writer for this outlet, I penned a column suggesting that questions over Rory’s nationality and his Olympic withdrawal were the cornerstones of this sentiment – a column which drew my first ever letter of complaint.
More than six years later, despite McIlroy competing for Ireland in Tokyo, one only has to delve into the comments of this site’s social channels on any Rory-related article to see that cohort haven’t gone away. I was recently sent a screenshot of quotes given by McIlroy in a 2017 press conference, the week before Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather stepped in the ring.
“I’m a big admirer of his,” McIlroy said of McGregor, “He talks about visualization and the law of attraction and all this stuff that he believes in it and he vocalizes it, and he has the courage to say what he thinks. I’m a believer in that stuff, and I’m a big advocate of that.”
Predictably, given the source, the screenshot was accompanied by messages suggesting McIlroy was a poor judge of character and other less complimentary claims. This, of course, came in the wake of McGregor’s latest public showing of poor grace, taking to Twitter to mock the mental health struggles and marriage breakup of PJ Gallagher, before turning on Paul McGrath – who’d lent Gallagher support – where he brought up the soccer star’s struggles with alcoholism.
That’s a sanitised version of the back-and-forth, of course.
You’d have to be living under a rock not to be aware of the spat, but for the stone dwellers among us, PJ Gallagher is a comedian, best known for a television show called Naked Camera, and hosts a morning show on Radio Nova. Now, for the record, I think Gallagher is about as funny as a kick in the crown jewels, but comedy is subjective, cruelty is not.
For clarity, McGregor was responding to a relatively benign Gallagher ‘joke,’ in which he suggested that Britain could “have this lad” after McGregor appeared on a list of the ‘top active UK’ MMA fighters.
Now, predictably, the screenshot I’d been sent didn’t quite tell the whole story. McIlroy would go on to say that “some of the stuff he does wouldn’t be my cup of tea,” but the inclusion of that wouldn’t exactly fit the narrative. It did get me thinking though.
Both McIlroy and McGregor can lay claim to something that very few can. They’ve both genuinely been the best in the world at their chosen sports. You can claim that MMA doesn’t have the participation levels to rival boxing – and I’d agree – but still, for a period, McGregor was top of the tree.
People who know considerably more about mixed-martial-arts than I genuinely believed that Jose Aldo was one of the greatest of all-time, and that the brash Dubliner was going to be taught a stern lesson. McGregor knocked him out in 13 seconds to become world champion.
McIlroy has ascended to the top of the world rankings on multiple occasions – only three players since the rankings began almost 40 years ago have been number one for longer.
But where McGregor’s career has been littered with public controversy after public controversy, Mcllroy has been in the public eye for much longer and, largely, been dignity personified. Sure, he’s taken pot shots at Greg Norman and LIV Golf, but he’s made no secret of his disapproval of the venture right from the start, very uncomfortable with the source of the funding, and I’d think the vast majority are on his side.
Now, maybe that’s not a fair comparison to make. Fighting sports promote a certain mentality – anybody who’s ever put their fists up and fought, either inside a ring or on the street, knows the feeling of nausea that rises from deep in your stomach. Anybody that wants it, embraces it, and makes a career out of it is a different breed.
While that may not excuse McGregor’s actions, it does explain them. I admire the bravado, just not the man behind it.
McGregor’s feet and fists made him a great fighter, but it was his mouth that brought him extreme wealth. It made him box office material, both for his fans, and those desperately hoping to see him beaten to a pulp. McIlroy plays for the same every week, whether he gets on the mic or not.
Golfers are naturally marketable, especially the young and charismatic ones. Rickie Fowler is the best example of somebody who’s made a fortune in off-course endorsements but has seldom said anything remotely interesting in public, pre-scandal Tiger Woods was the same.
In today’s society, where cancel culture is rife, any slip can lead to severe financial repercussions; something Phil Mickelson found out the hard way. But Rory has never been shy when talking to the press, never afraid to give his opinion or bare his soul. To allow yourself to be interviewed when clearly riding an emotional rollercoaster as he was after missing the cut at Portrush or after his performance at the 2021 Ryder Cup, knowing that you’re liable to break down, is bravery of a different sort.
When it comes to Irish sporting role models, I know which one I’d like future generations to aspire to.
While there’ll always be a few contrarians, most of the nation is starting to see Conor McGregor for what he is.
It’s high time they did the same for Rory McIlroy.