The Last Word: Reaction to 'minor setback' shows Rory is a major player

Even Tiger Woods has tasted major defeat three times more often than victory
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The Independent Online

Of all the advice hurled ever so generously at Rory McIlroy in the last week, at least one piece can be ignored and placed on top of that putrid heap entitled "utter garbage". It was that his reaction to his Masters meltdown revealed a worrisome tolerance for defeat, which will make his pursuit of a major that much more testing.

However fancifully they couched it, the great self-serving contrarians basically told Rory he had to learn to lose like a winner. Scowl, don't smile. Grunt, don't engage. Dismiss, don't reason. But most importantly strike out, don't accept.

Of course, the "show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser" maxim was invoked. One can always gauge the depth of an argument when the Vince Lombardi quote-book is dusted off from the vaults of Google. I'll show you some good losers. Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Moore, Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer... what have they ever won between them?

The above examples, and countless others, make one wonder whether Lombardi could really have been talking about the external reaction to defeat. I don't know a great deal about the all-conquering Green Bay Packers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but did Lombardi genuinely instruct his men to come out after a loss and behave like spoilt brats, giving the winners no credit, presenting no humility in reply? I very much doubt it.

My guess is Lombardi was talking about the internal reaction. In other words, he was talking about the flaming obvious. It does not take a genius to work out that the person who finds it easy to take defeat will not try to avoid it as much as the person who finds defeat difficult to take – and therefore is more likely to be a loser. To flip the coin, that's like saying "show me a good sword-swallower and I'll show you a sword-swallower". It's peerless logic, Janet and John style. Except, Lombardi's epigram sounds so damned profound it continues to be reeled off, just like his "winning isn't everything..." claptrap as well as some of those revered but quite frankly daft Shanklyisms.

Still it's not the late Lombardi's fault that his essentially glib statement rolls off the tongue so nicely that it has long been treated with unarguable virtue. Nor is it his fault that it's now dragged up by someone, somewhere whenever any delinquent needs excusing. So it is merely a mark of Wayne Rooney's passion, and how much he hates losing, when he bellows profanities about unsupportive fans into a TV camera. "Show me a good loser..." Yawn.

Naturally, the crass truism is employed more when the "loser" is simply being churlish or ungracious in post-match interviews (see Andy Murray, see Tiger Woods). And so long as they aren't offensive, I don't see any problem whatsoever in them being grumpy or unresponsive. It isn't edifying, but as humans with their own human characteristics, it's their right. But what I do have a problem with is when their grouchiness or curtness is lauded as part of what makes them a great champion. But even worse, when it is thrown in the face of someone such as McIlroy.

How can anyone have seen or heard anything but positive in the manner in which he took his 80? It would have been easy for the Northern Irishman to avoid the media immediately afterwards, present himself as a shattered youngster too distraught to talk. The golfing press would have understood; honest we would. Alternatively, he could have grunted one word answers, just like Woods. But no, McIlroy fronted up and did so with a dignity and – to use that dreaded word – a perspective that should establish him as a role model for those who are older, never mind younger.

Here was a 21-year-old whose vulnerability had been laid bare for the world to wince at and laugh at, probably in equal measure. He didn't moan, didn't shirk what he viewed as his responsibilities. Yet he did call it "a minor setback". Cue rage from the sporting pulpit.

"Minor? Bloody minor? This could derail his entire career," they screamed. "He shouldn't be taking it so well. He should be petrified how this will affect his future." Really? Why? How do they know how he has taken it? They don't, they can't. Just as nobody knows how McIlroy will cope with his demons, or even if he will have any demons. That's up to him, and whatever improvements he proceeds to make, either technically or mentally. But even then, who can be sure how he will react if and when the opportunity presents itself? Not even McIlroy himself. Although he is best placed to judge.

After all, he understands golf infinitely better than many of these newly discovered advisers. He understands that for the moment he must carry on, that he can't decamp to a lab for six months where they will rectify his pull-hook, his putting stroke or his psyche. McIlroy is no worse a golfer this Sunday morning than he was last Sunday morning. Only the perception has changed. That's the constantly changing nature of expectation for you, something he has coped with through the years of being a child golfing phenomenon.

Despite his rapid rise into the elite, there have already been setbacks for McIlroy, just as there have been for every professional. To adapt another Lombardi epigram: losing becomes the habit in golf. For everyone, that is. Even Woods has tasted the bitterness of major defeat three times more often than the sweetness of major victory. Think about that: the greatest winner golf has known for the last 25 years is fundamentally a loser when you tally the "played, won and lost" columns. Believe it, the Mr Grumpy we saw at Augusta is Tiger's default mode on a Sunday evening.

That's what makes golf so compelling. Even when you think you have the game beat, it ends up beating you. Not necessarily into submission, as some prematurely declare it will to McIlroy. But into coping how you best can cope. We should give thanks to the heavens that sport has a burgeoning superstar who copes with it the "right" way; i.e. the way in which we would like ourselves and our children to cope. And we can only pray to these same heavens it will establish McIlroy's as one of the game's winners. A good winner, at that.