You know the story by now: During Wednesday's pre-tournament presser at the Tour Championship, Rory McIlroy was asked about Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and his verdict was that "they're just getting older." A sentence later, he described them as being in the "last few holes of their career." The whole young-hotshot-snubs-his-nose-at-aging-icons angle proved irresistible to many outlets, and the ensuing headlines exploited the supposed generational conflict. John Strege rounded up the best of the bunch, and if you hadn't followed the story closely, you'd probably get the impression that Rory was an incorrigible punk gleefully insulting his elders.
The story made its way from mainstream sites to blogs, and in almost every case, those two quotes highlighted the story. Rory was forced to defend himself on Twitter that night, and when he finished his opening round at the Tour Championship a day later, reporters rushed up to ask how he felt about the "controversy."
The problem, as others have noted, is that the narrative was almost complete nonsense from the beginning. It was woven in reactionary terms for reactionary readers out of whole cloth. The headlines may have managed to get the quotes right, but they totally ignored context. When you read Rory's entire response, it becomes impossible to find anything incendiary:
Q. This is the first time since 1992 that Tiger and Phil have not played in the TOUR Championship. Do you feel like that symbolizes a changing of the guard?
RORY MCILROY: *Not really. I mean, Phil has played well in parts this year. He came really close to winning the PGA. He's had a few good -- I feel like he's gotten a little better as the year has went on. But it's a lot of golf for him to play in such a short space of time. So you could see he was getting a little tired the last couple of weeks. And, I mean, Tiger's not here just because he's been injured or he is injured. He hasn't had the opportunity to play. *
But I think if he gets back and when he gets back to full fitness, you'll see him back here again. So I'm not sure ‑‑ they're just getting older. Phil's 43 or whatever he is and Tiger's nearly 40. So they're getting into the sort of last few holes of their career. And that's what happens. You get injured. Phil has to deal with an arthritic condition as well. So it obviously just gets harder as you get older. I'll be able to tell you in 20 years how it feels.
This is Rory being complimentary, thoughtful, and, in the end, showing the kind of perspective about the passage of time that's rare among athletes his age. Or, really, athletes at all.
In the chaos that followed, it's important to note the stark divide between the headlines spawned by this "incident" and the articles below them. The latter were mostly well-measured and fair, and I'm certainly not trying to take any individual writers to task. Still, as editors well know, many Internet readers never make it past the headline. The words in large, bold font always dictate the discussion, regardless of what comes below them. Just for laughs, I visited the ESPN and Daily Mail stories listed above to find the two most-liked reader comments from each. The results:
"Funny how Rory wasn't saying much when he was missing the cut and playing terrible. Now he has dumped his fiance, and won a few tournaments and is now an expert on Woods and Phil" (ESPN)
"Have you noticed, Rory struts and bounces around the course alot more when he is playing well. I doubt he was strutting much after 2 separate four putts last week. A complete douche bag." (ESPN)
"Rorys got a long way to go and be more consistant before he compares himself to Tiger. Tiger dominat3d all tournaments not just Majors. Thats why he has 82 wins on PGA Tour" (Daily Mail)
"Tiger is still the best, its about him regaining his best form. Rory is the one to beat at the moment but he should not blow his own trumpet, let others blow it for him" (Daily Mail)
Each of these comments distinguishes itself for being remarkably stupid, but how can we deride a reader for shallow analysis when the headlines encouraged that exact type of discourse?
The golf media like to complain about the boring, cliche-ridden sound bytes rattled off by the duller players. I'm no different from the rest -- it's a sad fact that many (if not most) golfers leave a lot to be desired in the public speaking department, and it makes our jobs more difficult. That's why when a player like Rory comes along, gifted with a sense of humor, charisma, and an anecdotal verbal style, we spurn him at our peril. One reporter for a national outlet put it succinctly this week: "People don't realize that when the No. 1 golfer in the world is this entertaining, that's as good as it gets."
And here's the simple, self-defeating system by which we try to ruin a good thing:
Golfer says something interesting.
Journalists blow it out of proportion.
Readers follow our lead, misinterpret everything.
Golfer is forced to deal with the fallout, gets stressed and annoyed.
Golfer becomes more guarded in the future, resorting to cliches.
Journalists whine that golfer is boring.
As if to prove the point, Rory was in full "I'm focusing on golf" mode by Friday, sick of answering questions about a controversy that had been drummed up on a bedrock of deception.
Luckily, his fellow golfers weren't so reticent. Geoff Ogilvy spoke about why Tiger Woods has been giving the same press conference for a decade and more. "He should," said Ogilvy, "because if he's going to say anything slightly interesting and it's going to get turned on him, why should he put himself in that position? When he's just going to have to answer more questions the next time? If he just gives a vanilla conference, he doesn't have to answer any more questions."
"It was all just kind of taken out of context," added Rickie Fowler, "and the whole story that Rory was telling was right on point. I mean, they're getting older. It's not like you can play out here and compete once you're over 50 for very long. So it's just unfortunate that some stuff is taken out of context and that it can make you a little hesitant about what you say up here sometimes."
Jason Day admitted that the backlash from his 2007 quote about challenging Tiger Woods for the No. 1 spot in the world made him temporarily media shy, and turned him into "The King of Cliches." The same happened to Patrick Reed earlier this year, after his infamous "top five" comment; he's now very cautious around the media, and there's very little chance that we'll get to see his brash, interesting side for a long time.
The more players I spoke with, the more the consensus grew. "I think Rory's got a lot of respect for those guys and what they've done in their careers," said Kevin Na, "but it was probably worded the wrong way. And then if the media jumps on it, he's not going to say his opinion or what's on his mind. He's just going to say, 'I played good today,' like a robot."
"The media wants us to say things," Sergio Garcia concurred, "but then if we say the things, they manage to twist them around and kind of put us in a little bit of a hole for the next time. I guess it happens to people that who are a little bit more enthusiastic and a little bit more emotional. I know that I have to control myself a little bit, because a lot of the times they're going to turn it around and make it sound badly, so it's not worth it."
Obviously, the players bring their own bias to the discussion, and would probably prefer to be protected to absurd extremes, up to and including the abolition of a free press. Worse still, the culture of "media training," enforced by paranoid helicopter agents, has the de facto goal of preventing players from saying anything that transcends sponsor-approved banalities. (Sadly, the events of the past week are fodder for their cause.) I would never advocate shelving something truly incendiary, like Tiger's racist joke told to Charlie Pierce early in his career, or Sergio's "fried chicken" remarks about Tiger.
But shouldn't we at least pick our battles? Shouldn't we know the bombshell from the dud? And if we try to create bombshells from thin air, aren't we making it harder to access the really good stuff when it finally comes along?
Rory wouldn't say it, but 2014 has seen a changing of the guard. Young players are winning week after week, and the game's aging stars are failing. Tiger, when he's not hurt, looks tired and angry. Phil had one great tournament amid an inconsistent year. Jim Furyk finds it impossible to win, regardless of how well he plays. These three men, and others, are showing their mortality, and the fact that Rory recognizes it and can phrase the decline so articulately . . . well, it's a fascinating look at the game's generational shift from the eyes of a new star. If nothing else, we should be grateful that a player of such youth and talent complements his physical gifts with a capacity for insight and honesty. For the media, this is a window into a world that otherwise tries very hard to exclude us. It's the kind of open attitude that should be encouraged. Instead, we meet the generosity by setting fires . . . failing to realize that our intended targets hold the trump card of stubborn silence, and we're only burning ourselves.
Shane Ryan also writes for Grantland and Paste, and his book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be released by Random House in early 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @ShaneRyanHere.