The underdog prevailing against the odds is one of Hollywood’s favourite genres when it comes to sports-themed movies. I recently watched 12 Mighty Orphans on Netflix, and though based on a true story and, spoiler alert, the ‘Mighty Orphans’ suffer heroic defeat rather than heroic glory, the theme is still a popular one as the underdogs capture the hearts and minds of the neutrals who get behind them with a fervour usually reserved only for the teams they’ve supported their entire lives.
But in golf, genuine, feel-good underdog stories are as rare as hens’ teeth. As the Open Championship approaches, Ben Curtis’ win at Royal St. George’s back in 2003 or Todd Hamilton’s success at Royal Troon a year later are unlikely to be among the past-tournament highlights that will be featured as television broadcasters take us on a walk down memory lane.
No, golf is a sport where we want the big names to be battling it out at the top of the leaderboard, and we want the biggest name of all to prevail.
Contrast that to the All-Ireland Football Championship semi-finals at the weekend. As much as the prospect of a Dublin v Kerry All-Ireland Final whets the appetite, there was scarcely a neutral watching who wouldn’t have been willing Monaghan and Derry to cause the upsets that they threatened for large periods of their respective matches.
I know I was, and as a Donegal man, local Ulster rivalries could easily have compelled me to favour the Leinster and Munster sides. Yet, as the Farney and Oak Leaf men, relative paupers to the aristocrats from the Capital and the Kingdom, went into battle with the odds and history all against, it was impossible not to get behind the plucky underdogs.
But as Rory McIlroy hunted down Robert MacIntyre at the Genesis Scottish Open at the weekend, even large sections of the Scottish gallery were cheering on the four-time major winner with a soon-to-be 37 professional wins on his resume.
Sure, the Scotsman becoming just the second homegrown player to win the Scottish Open would’ve been a great story. It would’ve bolstered his Ryder Cup chances considerably, and after shooting a 64 that included one of the best closing birdies you’re likely to see this year, all of which came in a gale blowing 30mph, it’s hard to deny that he would’ve been a worthy winner.
But the world still wanted Rory to break his heart.
So what makes golf different? Why don’t we cheer for the underdog? Why is Keegan Bradley, playing in his first ever major and winning the PGA Championship, not as fondly remembered as Brooks Koepka, winning his third PGA Championship and fifth major, will be? Why is Charl Schwartzel birdieing the last four holes to win the Masters not etched in the memories like Phil Mickleson winning his third green jacket a year prior?
Part of the reason is that golf fans want to be part of a legacy, to be able to say ‘I was there’ or ‘I was watching’ when Tiger Woods won his 15th major, or when Rory McIlroy hit that 2-iron the last at the Scottish Open. And had it been anybody but McIlroy hunting down Bob MacIntyre, they’d still have been able to say “I was there when Bobby Mac hit that 3-wood to 18.’
But it was McIlroy, and he did something that only McIlroy and a select handful of others are capable of doing.
David took his best shot at Goliath and landed one on the chin, but the giant hit back harder and the crowd loved him all the more for it.