Being European has its advantages
It was simply disorienting. The young man across the table from me was just so humble, helpful, happy and courteous, all the traits that we rarely associate with 21-year-olds these days and certainly not with world-class athletes. There was no entourage waiting in the wings and no agent or PR rep hovering menacingly about telling me what questions not to ask and how much time was left in the interview.
The kid hardly seemed distracted or in a hurry either and when we were finally done he actually asked me a question: 'Isn't this the building Batman jumped off in The Dark Knight movie?' When I told him it was he sprung to his feet in a joyful manner, took a picture with his phone and proceeded to post it to his Twitter account in a matter of seconds. 'Very cool,' he said.
Six months later, Rory McIlroy is the hottest property in all of sports thanks to his dominating victory at the US Open and all I can think of is how engaging and likeable he was and how tough it will be to stay that way.
From his working-class Northern Irish roots to his protective agent Chubby Chandler, McIlroy has so many things to help keep him humble. But more than anything there is one thing that would seem to keep McIlroy firmly grounded amid the onslaught of temptations: he is not American. Now I am not in any way, shape or form intimating that the legion of boorish and woefully delusional athletes is unique to America. One only has to look at the antics of so many soccer players in Europe to know that is not true. However, as a golfer the mantle that McIlroy is assuming - the next Tiger Woods - is very much an American position.
In tennis it's OK to have a Swiss or Spanish player as the poster boy because that game is truly international. Only one of tennis' four grand slams is played in the US and there are a number of lucrative events played all over the world. But golf is a different money beast. Three of the four majors are on US soil and while there is a very good European tour, the big paydays are mostly Stateside.
Of course all this money in US golf and the huge money in international appearance fees is all Tiger's fault. The kid never got to be just a golfer; he was an industry first and foremost. I saw Tiger play in Thailand a couple of months after he turned pro and just before he won his first major at Augusta. There were no one-on-one interviews and he was barely a blip in the distance behind the massive wall of security and all the Nike and IMG flunkies.
We were told in no uncertain terms that human interaction with Tiger was not an option because he was beyond special. Of course you don't have to be a reader of the National Enquirer to know that a certain type of human interaction was indeed allowed with Mr Woods. But for years Tiger was gleaming and omnipresent, pitching everything from razors to mutual funds.
It's pretty obvious now that McIlroy is every bit as talented and nearly as charismatic as Tiger was at 22. Like Tiger, he was also golfing on national TV before he was 10. And while Madison Avenue will undoubtedly be knocking on his door, it won't be breaking it down like they did with Woods. This is a kid whose favourite team is not the Yankees or the Lakers, it's Manchester United. And while he's not planning to move to Orlando or Phoenix any time soon, he will still be greatly appreciated in the US.
But if young American Rickie Fowler, a primped up poodle with a beautiful swing who is still more Justin Bieber than Jack Nicklaus, had done what McIlroy just did he would already be on your kid's lunch box.
England's Luke Donald is the number one player in golf and his countryman, Lee Westwood, is number two. Both those guys could basically walk through any US airport without being accosted. But Tiger would be pure pandemonium, as would Phil Mickelson or even a greying Fred Couples and a spritely Fowler. I watched the US Open in the US with a US friend who is actually based overseas and after 10 minutes of seeing nothing but Europeans and Asians on the broadcast he finally muttered: 'They aren't even trying to show any US players.'
But I'm not sure whom it was he wanted to see. Was it the largely unknown Robert Garrigus or Kevin Chappell? Because they were the only two Americans who finished in the top 10 of their national championship. The game of golf has gone global but the big money has not and McIlroy has said he wants to play primarily on the European Tour where he is more comfortable. And that's good news because more of Europe and less of the US should help keep Rory within range of human interaction, the positive kind of course.