MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
All right, from an old tortoise, now to young athletes. Our sports commentator Frank Deford has some thoughts on the pressures facing the young and gifted in the sports world.
FRANK DEFORD: Precocity is always in vogue in sports. Or anyway, the media loves to cuddle up with precocity, to present us the next great thing. Neither can any new phenom merely be promising. No, he obviously must be the best there ever was.
And here comes Rory McIlroy now, winner of exactly three professional tournaments, a prefabricated legend, already being carried off to golf heaven. Young McIlroy will be playing in the British Open starting tomorrow - fresh off his ridiculously easy win in the U.S. Open. And, of course, if the wee lad doesnt win the British or other prominent championships, hell be dismissed for not living up to the hype - as if somehow, he, not the media, was responsible for shouldering him with hype.
Of course, yes, sometimes the blessed newcomer does indeed deliver on the ballyhoo. Both Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods turned out to be everything they were promised to be as adolescents. But more often its a case of a nice athlete who just developed early on. Sergio Garcia, for example, was going to be golfs continental archangel. Hes turned out merely to be, in that grand British jargon, a useful player.
I remember being with Nancy Lopez way back when she was 21, just about McIlroys age, and was winning her fifth tournament in a row. The euphoria was palpable. But that turned out to be the apex. Nancy had a wonderful career but she only won three majors, never a U.S. Open.
Likewise, athletes in other sports - like Boris Becker in tennis or Mike Tyson in boxing - had championship careers, but never achieved the majesty unfairly accorded them when first they burst into our consciousness.
One thing in McIlroys future favor is that hes not built on premature strength. Rather, his promise is found in grace, in the sublime beauty of his game. But the impatience to accord him greatness is accelerated by the sports need to find a replacement for the dishonored Tiger Woods.
McIlroy is thus twice cursed. Hes not only held up as Woods successor but also as his polar opposite. We ask him not only to breathe rarefied air for himself but to be a breath of fresh air for us.
The pressure placed upon him is further illustrated by the fact that Americans, who are so loath to embrace foreign athletes, seem just as enamored of McIlroy as are Europeans. Good grief, it took Americans a dozen years to give the German, Dirk Nowitzki, his fair due - but everyone already loves Rory and too many already expect too much of him.
Greatness is hard enough to handle. Harder still is to somehow manage to accept the potential mantle of greatness before youve even been able to put it round your own shoulders.
KELLY: Commentator Frank Deford, he joins us each Wednesday from WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Mary Louise Kelly.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And Im Steve Inskeep.
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