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PGA Championship 2024: On Rory McIlroy's private, public and parasocial lives

May 15, 2024
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Michael Reaves

LOUISVILLE — We want to know, because it goes against what we thought we knew. We don’t deserve to know, because it’s not our business. But it’s OK that we want to know, because it’s natural to be curious about things we care about.

And as unsatisfying as that conclusion is, that is where this ride must end.

Rory McIlroy filed for divorce Monday from his wife of seven years, Erica, a day after his win in Charlotte and days before he attempts to win his first major in a decade. Since the last time professional golf was held at Valhalla, where McIlroy hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy in 2014, his crusade against the pressures of who he once was against the hope of what he could still be again has been a constant fascination. The interest has only grown since the advent of the game’s civil war, with McIlroy becoming the face of his tour and shouldering the weight that comes with such responsibility. What he will try to do at this PGA Championship will only be amplified now that his name is now in tabloids. All due respect to Scottie Scheffler’s run, there is only one thing people are talking about on the grounds at the moment, and it’s not him.

McIlroy is not just a public entity. He’s arguably the most famous figure in the game now that Tiger Woods’ public appearances are limited to a few weeks every spring and summer. Rory is behind the mic at every tournament, willing to articulate what’s going on with his game or the game at large while being introspective and vulnerable and patient and thoughtful and charming.

He’s on our television screens because he’s usually in contention, and when the broadcast goes to commercial breaks he’s there as well. The Ulsterman is talked about more than any current player because the most oxygen is saved for the things that matter the most. He is somewhere between celebrity and royalty. This can be a blessing, but also a burden, and yet McIlroy has carried each with grace that we want to see from those in his position.

Make no mistake, it is a burden. Because the thing about being in the spotlight is, yes, it puts the highs and lows on display for all to see, but also anything you do. It can be innocuous, or it can have no connotation whatsoever. It is out there, part of the public domain to be consumed. The star’s doings become content. You personally may abhor that this is the way things are. But it is also reality and one that cannot be argued.

When a person reaches this level of fame there are bonds we develop towards them. Psychologists have coined this phenomenon as “parasocial relationships.” They are one-sided, with one person developing feelings of closeness and familiarity with someone they have never met. It’s essentially the root of sports fandom. It has its benefits; for McIlroy, it’s why he receives some of the biggest outpourings of love and support when he plays. It’s why sponsors are willing to shell out millions to be associated with him. There’s a flip side, however, because these relationships often put unfair expectations and beliefs on the focus of our attraction. Fans will get upset, angry, let down when their idol falls short of a standard they had no idea was placed on them to begin with. Just because we think we know a celebrity by a sound bite or a set of actions does not mean we know the whole picture. That’s especially true of McIlroy, whose stature is somewhat predicated on the idea that he is a good, moral, likeable guy.

It’s fine to feel this way. What a dull way to go through life without any emotional attachment. One of the beauties of sports is to develop these passions, to invest time and energy and support into a player or team. But there are jurisdictions in how far those emotions go. At the center of this week’s story is a man and a woman and a 3-year-old child, about their world being turned upside down and the ambiguity of what comes next. They deserve the respect and privacy we all want when it comes to our personal and familiar affairs. That includes what’s happened and what may come out in the days or weeks that follow.

This is an answer that will leave many unfulfilled. And it might not be easy to decouple what happened this week to what could happen this weekend at Valhalla. But while all eyes will be on Rory McIlroy the player, it’s time to extend the same grace that Rory McIlroy, the person and public entity, has given to us.

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