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expectations There are times when Rory McIlroy’s lofty perch must be a place of unearthly loneliness

Where Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry are beloved in their homeland, the Irish audience has been noticeably cooler in their embrace of Rory McIlroy

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Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry of Ireland and Pádraig Harrington look on during Tuesday's practice round prior to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Yas Links Golf Course in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry of Ireland and Pádraig Harrington look on during Tuesday's practice round prior to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Yas Links Golf Course in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry of Ireland and Pádraig Harrington look on during Tuesday's practice round prior to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Yas Links Golf Course in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images

A fascinating aside to Séamus Power’s wild and wonderful hypersonic missile surge toward the golfing stratosphere is what it reveals about our relationship with Rory McIlroy.

Distilled down to its essence it seems to say this: Ireland holds a harsher, infinitely more unforgiving light to its aristocrat of the fairways than to any active athlete from this island.

A striking detail in the legitimately giddy coverage of Power’s arrival in the penthouse suite where the game’s top 50 reside is contained in the digits on his birth cert.

Waterford’s man of the hour, at six weeks shy of his 35th birthday, is more than two years older than McIlroy.

Yet, as he lights a holy fire, climbing 414 rungs of the rankings ladder in just ten dizzying months, the narrative depicts Power at the beginning of his journey to the stars.

Correctly, it is presented as an upbeat, relentlessly positive story. A triumph of steely persistence and unbreakable will who is on the cusp of having the hallowed doors to Augusta and unimagined glories open before him.

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Tyrrell Hatton talks with Rory McIlroy as they pose for a photo prior to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Yas Links Golf Course in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

Tyrrell Hatton talks with Rory McIlroy as they pose for a photo prior to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Yas Links Golf Course in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

Tyrrell Hatton talks with Rory McIlroy as they pose for a photo prior to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Yas Links Golf Course in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

McIlroy is 32, a proven, prolific champion, somebody with more PGA Tour wins in the past eight months than Power has accumulated in his exceptional sporting life.

Rory has spent longer at world number one (106 weeks) than Seve or Nick Faldo, has won at least twice as many majors as any of his current world top ten peers.

He is articulate, candid, unusually generous with his time and thoughts.

And yet he is a considered a valid dumping ground for just about every imaginable cheap shot.

Time and again he finds himself cast as the golfing equivalent of the Premier League's terrace villain.

Where Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry are beloved in their homeland, a significant element of the audience (certainly outside of Northern Ireland) have been noticeably cooler in their embrace of McIlroy.

He is respected rather than revered, admired instead of adored. Sometimes, he is not granted even those diluted courtesies.

That he spoke honestly in 2012 about how he “always felt more British than Irish” bothered some who – absurdly – feel an entitlement to force feed their preconceived notions of identity down others’ throats.

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So much of the conversation around Rory – I speak as a sometime sulphuric contributor to the dialogue - tends to be bathed in toxic, battery-acid negativity.

There is no mute button that can entirely shut out the drone of sceptical suspicion and cynical sideswipes.

Among the accusatory barbs from the Supreme Court of 18-handicappers: He’ll never win another major; he chokes under pressure; his putting disintegrates under a major Sunday spotlight; he’s too happy with life outside golf; his wedge play stinks; he has Tiger’s talent but a kitten’s temperament.

Like so many high-achievers, he is partially a victim of his own success.

Much of the unusually sharp analysis - even by those who are thrilled when he delivers the best of himself - is a product of his transcendent gifts and the expectations created by the immune-to-gravity swagger of his early career.

Equally, there are traces of truth in many assessments of his decline as a force at the Masters, Open Championship, US Open and PGA Championship.

At times he has seemed to overthink things; on occasion elements of his game have wilted when the spotlight was at its most searching and brutal.

Think of the catastrophic systems failure at the first hole in Portrush in 2019; or the crushing closing 74 when in the final pairing at the previous year’s Masters.

It is absolutely reasonable to hold a microscope to the alarming downturn in McIlroy’s performance in the four weeks of the season where golfing greatness is on offer.

Why is is that a player equipped with the kind of outrageous once-in-a-generation talent that secured four majors by the time he was 25 has failed to win any of the last 28?

Eleven of The Tiger’s majors were seized in a vivid, seven-year scorched-earth assault on the senses from the year he turned 25 to the year he turned 32.

The very same period during which Rory has been elbowed to the margins.

It is eight years since his second PGA Championship win at Valhalla prompted Jack Nicklaus himself to suggest his own historic high water mark of 18 career majors might be eclipsed by the rampaging, swashbuckling Holywood wonder.

“Rory is an unbelievable talent. I think he has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors or whatever he wants to do,” was the Golden Bear’s arresting soundbite.

Yet, since 2014, Danny Willett, Jimmy Walker and Gary Woodland are among the sport’s minor figures to have harvested a major while Rory tends a fallow field.

But, at the very least, we are required to pepper our harsher words with perspective.

McIlroy has 13 Top Tens and six Top Fives in majors since 2015; He has won two Fed-Ex Cups in that time. Between 2014 and 2020 his PGA tour stroke average per round was always below 70, twice it was the best on tour.

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Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland kisses the Claret Jug after winning the British Open Championship in 2014. Pic. Reuters.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland kisses the Claret Jug after winning the British Open Championship in 2014. Pic. Reuters.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland kisses the Claret Jug after winning the British Open Championship in 2014. Pic. Reuters.

He takes his 2022 bow in Abu Dhabi this week as the eighth ranked player in the world, rivalled only by Bryson De Chambeau for box-office pull, a victory at Augusta away from becoming only the sixth player in the game’s deep history to claim the career grand slam.

At a time when Ireland might not claim a soccer player among the planet’s top one thousand, there are three golfers from the island in the men’s top 50.

Lowry delivered something gorgeous and immortal in Portrush that, aligned to his warm and gregarious personality, ensures the audience will always swoon when the Offaly man (current ranking, 48th) walks into the room.

Power is the feel-good story of the winter months, a player for whom the professional game might have gone either way, seizing the moment and emerging as a genuine force.

But it is McIlroy who is the global superstar, a genius who has spent a lifetime rising above the exceptional, on his sunniest days of composition making music beyond the talents of the rest of the field.

And soaring to that rarefied summit where only a tiny few get to perch.

For all his garlands and his glories, there are times when it must be a place of unearthly loneliness.

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