British Open: McIlroy, Spieth Show Strain of Great Expectations

July 17, 2016
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If you tuned into the 145th British Open at Royal Troon expecting to see a golf tournament, that’s exactly what you got. There was some wind, some rain, and half the field lucked out by avoiding the worst of it. The other half was left to rue what might have been as they tried to dry out their socks and underwear.

The usual Open stuff.

But like one of those Salvador Dali paintings that is actually two paintings in one, there was another show playing out on your TV screen. If you had to give it a title it might be something like, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! This British Open was Shia LaBeouf bizarrely wearing a paper bag over his head imprinted with “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” while walking the red carpet in Berlin.

First came Rory McIlroy telling the world in his Tuesday presser that not only was Olympic golf not worth playing, but it also wasn’t worth watching. He would watch track and field and “the stuff that matters” in the Rio Olympics, as damning an indictment of Olympic golf as we’ve heard from anyone, anywhere, so far. (It’s still early.)

WATCH: Rory Tosses, Breaks Club After Bad Shot

Then came the kicker: “It’s not my job to grow the game of golf,” McIlroy said.

Well, okee dokee!

McIlroy took arrows from all corners, a fusillade of criticism led by Golf Channel wag Brandel Chamblee. How dare he! Then came the backlash to the backlash: Rory had every right to speak his mind! We should celebrate his candor!

Given the opportunity to clarify his comments after signing for a two-under 69 Thursday, McIlroy said, “Obviously I feel like I do my bit to grow the game. It’s not as if I’m uninterested.” He mentioned his roles promoting PGA Junior League and First Tee programs, but sounded weary of his fame and the implicit quid pro quo that in exchange for all that money and fame he conform to political correctness.

MORE: Johnny Miller Calls Out Rory’s ‘Tight Shirts,’ ‘Muscles’

“I’ve spent seven years trying to please everyone,” he said, “and I figured out that I can’t really do that, so I may as well be true to myself.” As moments go, it was basically Sir Charles Barkley saying in a 1993 Nike spot, “I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

So that was McIlroy. Just because I can hit a 400-yard drive…

Then came Jordan Spieth, who didn’t sound very pleased with the demands of his fame, either. Specifically, Spieth bristled at being the victim of his own success, and being judged somehow deficient in 2016 after his historic, five-win season last year.

“Yeah, it’s been tough given I think it’s been a solid year, and I think had last year not happened I’d be having a lot of positive questions,” Spieth said after shooting a third-round 72 that left him too far behind to contend, along with everyone else not named Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson. “Instead, most of the questions I get are comparing to last year and, therefore, negative because it’s not to the same standard.”

In essence, Spieth was saying he had a Tiger Woods problem: He was a victim of his own success. But instead of saying “It is what it is,” as Woods did, Spieth turned the focus around, or tried to, pointing the finger at the media’s unrelenting negativity.

So I think that’s a bit unfair to me,” he added, “but don’t feel sorry for me. I’ll still be okay. But I would appreciate if people would look at the positives…”

You get the idea. (But don’t feel sorry for him.) Spieth went on to mention his age, 22, and golf history. He briefly tried to put into context his untouchable 2015.

McIlroy, by the way, is only 27. He and Spieth are sublime talents, and they’re pretty great in the interview room, too. They’re refreshingly honest. Normally.

With the benefit of time, both will come to see that their comments at this Open were something less than refreshing. Honest, yes, but not refreshing. There was more than a whiff of victimhood here, which does no one any good, least of all them. They could perhaps benefit from emulating Mickelson, who as usual smiled and thumbs-upped his way around Troon despite a rare moment of pique as he cussed out a photographer.

Does Mickelson always embrace the demands of fame? Certainly not. But at 46 he has learned that no good can come of airing those grievances, especially those related to his taxes. In the real world people are slapping the hoods on Buicks, or longing for the good old days before they’d lost that job.

More endearing still was Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who had famously celebrated a win by dressing up as a piñata. Who did everything but invite fans to rub his tummy and tug his beard. (Had this been the Barbasol Championship he’d have no doubt sat for a ceremonial shave on camera.) Johnston smiled. He laughed. He poked fun at himself

I’m a celebrity, his actions fairly screamed. Can you believe it?

McIlroy and Spieth shot 67 and 68, respectively, in the final round at Troon on Sunday. They are not role models. Or they are. We’ll see them again at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol in two weeks. Maybe they’ll have figured it out by then.