It’s a touchy thing, this business of turning athletes’ personal affairs into breaking news. Just because they own some extraordinary talent, do they deserve to live their lives in a petri dish under our collective microscopic lens? And yet by the same measure, aren’t the transgressions of public figures in some ways ripe for scrutiny?
I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to either of these questions, with varying lines of blurriness based on the specific scenario, but here’s my own rule of thumb: Let the private stuff remain private – until it starts interfering with the reason they’ve accrued this fame in the first place. Then it’s fair game.
All of which leads us to Rory McIlroy. On May 21, the golfer once nicknamed Boy Wonder announced he’d broken off a highly publicized engagement with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki just after sending out the wedding invitations. Reports emerged that he did so with a quick phone call that she initially believed was a joke, and so the scandalous nature of the whole thing led to some very obvious international headlines.
It was real life ripped from the script of a soap opera – the camera-ready couple coming together in the spotlight, then coming apart under that same glare. It became a major story in the tabloids, but similarly turned into big news in the golf world, for much less salacious reasons.
Prior to the breakup, McIlroy had competed in nine worldwide events and while he’d fared predictably well – two runners-up, a sixth place, a seventh, two eighths and a ninth – he had yet to win a tournament. Four days after his announcement, though, he was improbably holding aloft the BMW PGA Championship trophy, the look on his face more startled than elated.
While he downplayed the cause-and-effect of his personal life on his professional career, it marked a clear turning point in a year when he made plenty of news off the golf course and even more news on it, winning two major championships and four overall titles and once again ascending to No. 1 on the world ranking.
So much news, in fact, that it earned McIlroy the distinction of being Golf Channel’s No. 1 Newsmaker for 2014.
Maybe we should have seen it coming. Three years ago, when he won the U.S. Open for his first career major, one major national publication proclaimed it “Golf’s New Era.” When he prevailed at the next year’s PGA Championship, others echoed that sentiment.
Entering this year, though, his game had been in a funk. Playing with Nike clubs for the first time last year, he won just one event. And prior to making that fateful May phone call, he had dropped outside the world’s top 10 – unfamiliar territory for a player around whom the supposed new era was forming.
Whether it was newfound personal freedom that led to his latest ascent or just the curious coincidence of everything in his game clicking from a technical standpoint at the same time, McIlroy soon proved why there had already been so many declarations of his eminence.
Two months after winning the BMW PGA, he played like a rockstar at the former home of the Beatles, clearly the headliner on Royal Liverpool’s grand stage. Who could have seen it coming? Well, if not the millions who had witnessed his previous two major triumphs, then at least his own father, Gerry, who along with two friends had placed a hefty wager on his son a decade earlier that paid off to the tune of more than $300,000.
One month later and thousands of miles away, McIlroy finished off another major victory, winning in the dark at Valhalla to join the likes of only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in the modern era as players with four majors by the age of 25.
And so the comparisons came quickly and often, mostly in relation to the latter and his lifelong pursuit of the former. McIlroy was asked about Woods’ ongoing efforts to break Nicklaus’ career major record during the time between winning the Open and winning the PGA, when he took a little side trip to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He was asked about Woods’ long-term goals; he was asked how his might differ.
“I know how many majors the greats of the game have won,” he answered. “But I never wanted to compare myself. If I go on to win whatever number it is, then that's great. At least at the end of my career, there's not going to be a disappointment. ‘Oh, I wanted to get to 15, but I only got 12, bummer.’ … I'd love to end my career with 12 majors, but I don't want it to be a disappointment.”
Therein lies the remaining aspect of what made McIlroy the game’s biggest newsmaker this year. It wasn’t just his performance. It certainly wasn’t just his personal life. But when you sprinkle in these thoughtful, charismatic soundbites – comments unlike so many of his peers, because they ooze with reflection and deliberation rather than the usual homogenized rhetoric – it provokes greater headlines, vaulting him further into the ever-evolving news cycle.
Golf’s new era, the one spearheaded by McIlroy, might not have begun three years ago with his first major, or two years ago with his second. It’s undeniable now, though, after two more major titles and an unambiguous journey to atop the world ranking once again, that the game has progressed to the next stage.
And for that, more than any other reason, McIlroy was clearly the No. 1 Newsmaker of 2014.