It was the spring of 1994 in Clearwater and Phillies manager Jim Fregosi had just gotten his first extended look at a young pitcher named Ricky Bottalico. “I like the kid,” Fregosi told reporters. “He’s got good face.”
And he was right. Bottalico had flames in his dark eyes, a jaw that locked into place whenever he needed something extra and an expression on the mound that suggested he wasn’t afraid to aim a fastball at your earhole.
If you’ve followed sports at all, you’ve seen that same countenance a thousand times. The best athletes are able to wear their determination like a mask. All of them might not snarl as effectively as a Bottalico or a Bob Gibson, but there’s no mistaking their intentions. They don’t call it “killer instinct” for nothing. After all, who would you rather see staring back at you from 60 feet, 6 inches away? Goose Gossage? Or Calvin Schiraldi?
Not every great athlete has the look, of course. In some, what’s revealed in their faces is closer to a calm certainty than orneriness. But the message delivered is no less clear. They’re going to fight you, challenge you, beat you.
Conversely, we’ve all seen those expressions that presaged failure. Who can ever forget the deer-in-the-headlights look in Schiraldi’s eyes as he and the Red Sox were in the process of blowing Game 6 and the 1986 World Series? Or the dead-faced puzzlement with which Jean Van de Velde met his disastrous 1999 British Open fate?
In golf, Tiger Woods certainly had the look. So did Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson and and Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. But unless I’m missing something, I just don’t see it in Rory McIlroy’s face.
As McIlroy’s astonishing performance in the 111th U.S. Open clearly indicated he’s got something special. But whatever that is, it’s not apparent in his pleasant, freckled face. If there is a fire in McIlroy’s belly, the smoke hasn’t reached the exterior yet.
The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland appears quizzical, innocent, beatific, even awestruck at times. If his face could talk, it seems like it might say, “Wow, this is cool. Did you see that shot I just hit? I must be pretty good.” I saw nothing that matched his record-setting play, nothing that shouted, “Give up, guys, because I’m going to pulverize this course and you!”
McIlroy’s ingenuous appearance made his final-round Masters collapse understandable. “Sure, the kid blew up under pressure. Look how uncertain he seemed.” Last weekend at Congressional, you kept waiting for one of those moments when, as took place on Sunday at Augusta, he would bury his head in the crook of his arm and bemoan his cruel fate. It never happened.
Maybe that’s why he never wavered. Let's face it. Congressional never challenged him. Perhaps if the U.S. Golf Association had set up the course to more resemble a typical Open course than some weekly Tour stop, McIlroy would have been better-tested.
I’m not suggesting this is a fatal flaw. When you’ve got a picture-book swing like McIlroy, when you’re able to hit the ball 315 yards and straight and can putt fearlessly, you could look like Don Knotts and win golf tournaments.
It does, however, make McIlroy all the more interesting. Can you win consistently, in any sport, with such an angelic demeanor? Dale Murphy was a real-life angel, but he didn’t resemble one with a bat in his hands. How good could McIlroy be if he ever learns to bark and growl?