The next time you watch Rory McIlroy being interviewed, pay attention to how he pivots from question to answer. Frequently, his first words are, "Yeah, for sure." It's like a drinking game waiting to happen, or the first day of improv class, where students are taught to say, "Yes, and," because you run into fewer roadblocks that way. McIlroy, 23, lives in a world of, "Yeah, but," and, "I already answered that one," and in rare cases, "Have a good day." And yet Rory will still tee up even the most ordinary, scuffed-up range ball of a question, load up on his right side, and send it out into the world with his signature action, the polite and cheerful, "Yeah, for sure."
Of course, McIlroy isn't Golf Magazine's Player of the Year for semantics or because he's a swell guy. He's POY because he performed. He won the Honda Classic, fell back, then crushed the field at the PGA Championship by a record eight strokes. He took FedEx Cup pole position with another win at the Deutsche Bank, and yet another at the BMW. After that run of three victories in four starts, followed by a 3-point week at the Ryder Cup, there was no question: McIlroy, who also finished second at the Accenture Match Play and the Wells Fargo, was even better in 2012 than he was in 2011, when he won the U.S. Open, also by eight.
(Related Photos: Rory's 2012 Season in Review)
This was also the year that McIlroy became enshrined as a Friend of Tiger (FOT), a fact that became hard to miss when they had lunch together at the Barclays, and joked around with one another during interviews. FOTs are generally Masters of the Universe (MOUs) like Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter and Roger Federer, but McIlroy, while no doubt MOU-certified, is laughably at odds with the MOU vibe — one scribe compared him to a dog whose belly you just want to scratch. He is by far the most human of those superhuman athletes, the rare giant who can still meet the rest of humanity at eye level. Can you imagine Woods or any other FOTs extending the yeah-for-sure bridge to the rest of us? Federer, perhaps — the rest of them, not so much.
Part of it is a regional thing; occasionally Graeme McDowell, also from Northern Ireland and one of McIlroy's best pals, will begin an answer that way. But those three words inform McIlroy's approach to not just interviews but the up-and-down nature of golf itself. Consider the early-season Honda Classic at PGA National. After starting the day nine shots behind 54-hole leader McIlroy, Woods eagled the 18th hole to shoot 62, pulling within one of the curly-haired would-be king and sending tremors across the course. Tiger was back! This was McIlroy's cue to demonstrate his vast knowledge of recent golf history and wilt at the thought of beating Tiger Woods.
(RELATED PHOTOS: McIlroy’s career in pictures)
Instead, McIlroy seemed unmoved. He rolled in his birdie putt on the 13th green and, on a course whose back nine can appear to be made of only water and sand, saved par on three of his last five holes to win and seize the No. 1 ranking for the first time. Tiger played like Tiger again? Yeah, for sure. It's nice to have shot 69 and won anyway.
Then came The Slump, or the not winning so much, or whatever it was, which coincided with more frequent "WozIlroy" sightings. After he won the Honda, McIlroy nixed practice time at Doral to visit gal pal Caroline Wozniacki in New York. She pulled him out of the stands at Madison Square Garden to hit a few balls, after which McIlroy jetted back to Miami, shot an opening-round 73 and ultimately lost to Justin Rose by two. Ah, well, we had to give him that one, what with young love and all that. But then, at the Masters, he closed with 77-76 to tie for 40th, and missed the cut at the U.S. Open, and the clucking began in earnest. You can't have it all, Rory. He tied for 60th at the British Open.
Alas, he didn't make a big stink at how unfair it all was, how we have such short memories and besides, who wouldn't enjoy being Wozniacki's beau? No, McIlroy simply got on with it. He worked with his swing coach, Michael Bannon, and his putting coach, Dave Stockton, until the game came back to him in full. What's that? You say I'm playing lousy? Yeah, for sure. I'm working at it and I'll get better.
(Related Photos: McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki's World Tour)
Apparently we were wrong. Maybe when you don't put up roadblocks, when life isn't a zero-sum game, you really can have it all, as McIlroy seems to.
We do worry about Rory. What if Caroline breaks his heart? What if the 2016 Olympics kerfuffle — over whether McIlroy will play for Great Britain or Ireland — is the issue that finally compels him to turtle, or worse, turn on his inquisitors? Hard to envision, isn't it?
A few years ago, McIlroy was having his picture taken for Golf Magazine with some other young stars just a few paces from a resort check-in. One of the players was late, so McIlroy and another pro had some time to chat. There was no velvet rope, nothing to indicate a closed set, and an overzealous and overserved older woman cozied up to McIlroy and stayed there, spinning a few yarns, laughing, having a lovely time. McIlroy kept smiling and never said an unkind word.
Yes, it's been a fine year for McIlroy, but we've seen great golf. Rarely, though, have we seen it played with such humility, equanimity and grace.
(More McIlroy: Rory's Player of the Year Special Section)
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.