Nick Westby: McIlroy ticks all the right boxes to lead chase for 2014’s big prize

Rory McIlroy.
Rory McIlroy.
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TEN sports, nine individuals, one team player, six men, four women and a guide.

No rugby players, no cricketers, just one footballer and even two athletes who slide down mountains for a living.

The shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award has never been as varied.

It is a list that represents the absence of standout favourites as we have seen in recent years; with Andy Murray a cert last year after his historic Wimbledon triumph, and Sir Bradley Wiggins an even shorter-odds selection in 2012 after his Tour de France and London Olympic double header.

But 2014 has been no less dramatic, from the bizarre of the Winter Olympics in Sochi to the brilliance at Glenagles, as Europe won the Ryder Cup.

This year’s list shines a light on the lesser sports, those away from the cut and thrust and weekly grind of team sports.

Even the one footballer on the list, Gareth Bale, conducts his business day in, day out in Spain.

That a Welshman is the only footballer on the list highlights the elephant in the room; the inept performance by England at this summer’s World Cup.

Wayne Rooney earned his 100th cap recently and is closing in on England’s all-time goalscoring record, but along with his team-mates out in Brazil he was unable to deliver when it mattered most.

Bale is the most expensive footballer in the world. That is not a label that suggests he should be the best, but he has proven he is worthy of his place at Real Madrid and scored a crucial goal in the Champions League final. Big players deliver on the biggest stages.

Bale is a good bet to win the prize. With no other footballers to split the count, he will also benefit from the Welsh vote as rugby union’s Leigh Halfpenny did last year when he finished second in Leeds.

For all the merits of the nominees – Lizzy Yarnold for her skeleton gold in Sochi, Carl Froch for the shuddering punch he landed on George Groves’s chin, Jo Pavey for proving life can begin at 40 for a part-time middle-distance runner and mum – the race for BBC’s annual gong looks a two-horse gallop.

Rory McIlroy and Lewis Hamilton are the best in the world at two mainstream individual sports, and it is not all that often that Britain can boast such dominance.

Hamilton has recent history in his corner. He won the Formula 1 world drivers’ championship only last Sunday.

But his appearance near the top of the betting list calls into question that oft-repeated contoversy about the BBC’s end-of-year pageant, namely, are we voting for Hamilton’s achievement, or for his ‘personality’?

Because let’s be honest, he is at the back of the grid when it comes to personality.

Often coming across cold and clinical in television interviews, he appears to have never sought to reach through the camera lens and put an arm round the shoulder of the common man the way Jenson Button, his old team-mate, manages so effortlessly.

Hamilton’s achievement is also questionable. Granted, he was the best driver in Formula 1 this season; 11 wins in 19 races says as much.

He was ice cool when it mattered under pressure in Abu Dhabi last week, and the way he shot off the line to overtake title-rival Nico Rosberg on the opening corner had me out of my seat.

But in Formula 1 he is only as good as his car, and his car was the best on the grid. In reality, he only had to beat one man this year, Rosberg. Disagree with that? Well where did Sebastien Vettel finish this year after nosing the chequered flag first in each of the last four years when sat in the best car?

McIlroy has to beat 155 golfers nearly every week. They all have roughly the same equipment and they all know that if they beat him they have a good chance of winning. McIlroy is dominating modern golf at present the way only Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have in their day.

Not only did he win the Open from start to finish, the BMW PGA Championship with a stunning final round and spearhead Europe’s win at Gleneagles, but at Valhalla in August he won his second major of the year and fourth of his career at the US PGA.

The way McIlroy stared down all-comers that week and scared them with his presence, epitomised a man at the top of his game.

He also ticks the personality box because he still has the element of a cheeky chappy about him and is happy to do interviews, no matter how many are required of him.

McIlroy has to be this year’s winner. But how refreshing it is to see gymnast Max Whitlock, swimmer Adam Peaty, equestrian Charlotte Dujardin and Paralympic skier Kelly Gallagher and her guide Charlotte Evans honoured alongside him.

It is shame there is no Sam Burgess, Lizzie Armitstead of Alistair Brownlee, but we can’t be too picky.

AND ANOTHER THING .....

LEEDS did a grand job hosting the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards last year and West Yorkshire has built on that with a strong showing in the 2014 young sports personality of the year reckoning.

Three of the 10 shortlisted names come from this neck of the woods; Wakefield diver Alicia Blagg, Keighley weightlifter Rebekah Tiler and Leeds gymnast Nile Wilson.

Blagg and partner Rebecca Gallantree took themselves by surprise when winning gold in the Commonwealth Games 3m synchro final in Glasgow, in a meet when the City of Leeds club was at the forefront of England’s success.

Tiler is a 15-year-old who can lift 123kg over her head and has claimed a heavy load of titles and records in 2014.

Wilson, 16, won two golds and four medals in total at the Commonwealths, only one fewer than Whitlock who is ahead of him on the main list purely because he already had a reputation before Glasgow.

All three have done themselves and the county proud and have big futures.