I watch most sports from an agnostic perspective, one where I care more about their overall qualities than specific participants. I enjoy tennis and soccer for the artistry and creativity; Formula 1 for the strategy and overarching narratives; hockey because I live in Canada and need to remain conversant in social situations. And when I have a clearly defined rooting interest—the ascendant Buffalo Bills, the stranded-in-Florida Toronto Raptors—I’m easily swayed by the drama of a drawn-out touchdown drive or the pure aesthetic pleasure of a fine NBA offense, even when my teams are on the business end of a beatdown.
The defining fandom of my adult life is watching Rory McIlroy play golf, a fact I feel almost bashful admitting. Last weekend I watched him win a tournament for the first time in 18 months, his third win at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, in what felt more like a war of attrition at a tricky course than a triumphant come-from-behind victory. I spent the last half-hour of the telecast on a knife’s edge as Rory smothered his final drive of the tournament into the jagged creek that defines the left half of Quail Hollow’s 18th hole. And in the days since he lifted the trophy, I’ve been trying to figure out why. What is it about this guy and the way he hits the ball that’s left me so enthralled?
Perhaps it’s worth noting that I missed out on Rory’s phenom phase at the dawn of the 2010s, a shame I chalk up largely to bad timing. Like so many other young golf fans, I grew up spoiled by Tiger Woods’s cartoonish domination and started playing golf myself because of it. My only real non-Tiger memories of golf fandom from those years are Mike Weir winning The Masters in 2003 (again, blame Canada) and Phil Mickelson’s six-inch vertical in the same tournament a year later. I stopped playing golf when I was a teenager because I was too much of a headcase to have fun, and my fandom waned as well. I graduated high school in 2008 and came back to the game in earnest only when I had sufficient free time and disposable income nearly a decade later.
And so I missed the years when the kid from Northern Ireland with the pudgy cheeks and the goofy curls unleashed a fearless, towering draw and became golf’s Next Big Thing. I knew he was a figure of some import, but I was probably too busy drinking Rolling Rock in dingy basements with my friends to care. This week, the PGA Championship is returning to Kiawah Island for the first time since 2012, when Rory stormed a soggy course in mid-August and stomped the field by eight shots. I don’t think I’ve seen a minute outside of random clips embedded within contemporary broadcasts.
My personal highlight reel is stacked with more recent shining moments. The earliest date back to fall 2016, when he roared into the Tour Championship with a hole-out eagle before duelling Patrick Reed at the Ryder Cup in the most explosive golf match I’ve ever seen. I cruised through his imperial stretch of play in 2019, which peaked with a final-round 61 at the Canadian Open that easily could’ve been lower. I even loved his performance at the 2020 Masters, where he dug himself a massive hole in typically befuddling fashion before making a valiant charge in the final three rounds.
It hasn’t all been sunshine and nuclear bombs off the tee. Rory fandom means digesting your fair share of wedges from the go zone where the amount of spin seems to have been dictated by the giant spinning wheel on The Price Is Right. It means momentum-killing five-footers that burn the edge and, more recently, a wicked two-way miss with the driver that’s poisoned his defining strength. Sometimes the only highlights come from off the course, where he’s emerged as golf’s vocal conscience and a leader linking the PGA and European Tours. His stances on issues like bifurcation and the emerging Saudi influence in golf win the headlines, but his moment-to-moment thoughtfulness and good humor with fans and the media are just as notable.
Even when slogging through his version of a slump, he’s displayed a level of emotional generosity that’s rare for your average dude in his early 30s, let alone the dozen people who can count themselves among the best golfers in the world. When you’re surrounded by dead-eyed jocks, smarmy ex-country club kids, and cool marksmen whose seeming lack of pulse on the course translates to their everyday persona, resembling a normal person feels like a monumental achievement.
In recent years, Rory McIlroy's thoughtfulness in the media center has occasionally been more noteworthy than his play
“Normal” is the word that brings me closest to cracking the code of my Rory fandom. To care intensely about his game is to imagine the life of an articulate, well-adjusted, decent person—in other words, the way we all see ourselves—who happens to be generationally, freakishly talented, and riding along for all of that joy and agony. I’m sure having access to a transcendent gift is mostly fun and occasionally torturous.
Rory fandom is clearly a different experience than rooting for Tiger, who was so clinical and thorough in his demolition of his competitors that it took a decade of tragedy and scandal for him to seem remotely human. It’s also a different experience than rooting for Jordan Spieth, the only other active and relevant player who inspires a similar level of devotion. If I feel too distant from Tiger to establish a true connection, then Jordan feels too close: duct-taping his way to major championships, neuroses crackling like live wires, smoke practically billowing from his ears every time he talks through a shot with Michael Greller. I can’t spend every Sunday afternoon retracing the exact mental contours that brought me to shooting 93 earlier that morning.
Cheering for Rory means having it both ways. You can see yourself within someone who routinely steps outside the bounds of what should be possible: drives that refuse to plummet back into frame for an extra second or two, long irons that cut through the air instead of whimpering into the short right rough, that giddy bounce down the fairway that’s like the hot-hand theory incarnate.
It’s an experience encapsulated by his journey down the 72nd hole at Quail Hollow on Sunday. I watched his ball hook into the hillside and thought about his decision to work with Pete Cowen, the three weeks he spent grinding after bombing out of the Players Championship and the Masters, the frankness with which he’s spoken about leaving the past behind to find a newer, more successful version of himself. I thought about the ball he hit into somebody’s pool while getting blistered by Ian Poulter in match play. I saw myself in the strain so obviously etched into his face. And then I watched him set up over a fluffy lie, the ball well below his feet, and rocket a mid-iron into two-putt range to win the tournament by a shot. I didn’t see myself in that moment; I saw someone better.
Jamieson Cox lives in Ontario, Canada, and has written about music for TIME, Pitchfork, Billboard, and The Verge. He has a newsletter called One Good Song.