Rory McIlroy

Almost as extraordinary as Rory McIlroy’s golfing achievement this week is the response to him. When have you ever seen a sporting event in which everybody is rooting for the same competitor?

What Rory (we’re all on a first name basis with him now) achieved is remarkable. In a game where close contests are the norm, Rory lapped the field. He won the most difficult tournament of all, the U.S. Open, by 8 shots and produced the lowest-ever winning score in 111 years of the tournament. And he is only 22.

During the final round on Sunday and even the third round on Saturday, fans everywhere and even most of the other competitors in the tournament were cheering for him. Recall, this is not an Arnold Palmer, a beloved icon of golf who has cultivated the admiration of the golf-watching crowd for years. Rory has only been on the international stage for a couple of years. Yet chants of “Let’s go Rory!” accompanied him all along the fairways of the brutally difficult Congressional golf course outside of Washington, D.C.

Why? Of course, we like to see fresh-faced, young athletes conquer seasoned veterans in sports. But what made Rory special during Open week was not his great success. It was his failure. Only two months earlier, Rory had blown a 4-shot lead at the Masters. He had played brilliantly for three days. Then he collapsed. The pressure got to him, especially on the back nine, and the seemingly flawless swing fell apart. He landed with a thud, and without the championship he had seemed destined to win.

The conversation afterward was about his youth and inexperience on the great stage. But the feeling was compassion. Our hearts went out to this youthful competitor who seemed to have it all going his way, and then did not. We knew what he was going through because we’ve gone through the same thing ourselves in one fashion or another. Everyone who has ever failed in a great attempt has been there. To do it in front of millions on television inspired compassion in all of us. In failing to win on Masters Sunday Rory showed his vulnerability, his humanity, and we loved him for it.

That’s why when he took charge of the U.S. Open last week, so many were cheering for him. The story of a nice young kid conquering the seasoned pros and the record books would have been terrific anyway, but with Rory there was more. We had an emotional connection based on shared experience, the experience of trying and failing and trying again.

If you recall only a little more than a decade ago when Tiger Woods was the ascendant golfer, it was completely different. We admired Tiger’s dazzling skill. But we had not seen him fail in the same way. The feeling for him was admiration, not compassion. He was never like us to begin with. Which is why when he fell from grace, for more sordid reasons, there was so much less compassion for his troubles.

The personal connection that so many felt for Rory, a feeling of oneness at the emotional level, is central to the human emotional system. The people we like and the ones we love are those we feel that sense of connecting to. It is too soon to know what kind of career Rory will have and if that emotional connection will last. For now, Rory McIlroy is the nice kid who bounced back from failure to win the biggest tournament of all. The entire golfing world is happy for him.