It was a week that began with a hooked iron out of bounds. It ended, prematurely, with tearful interviews. Dan Murphy assesses the enigma of Rory McIlroy
The enigmatic Rory McIlroy shoots one of the worst rounds of his professional career yet somehow leaves Portrush with his reputation enhanced. Riddle me that.
He misses the cut in the first Open to be played in his home country in his lifetime and the reaction of the golfing world is to embrace him still closer to its collective bosom. How curious.
Come next April – and yes, it is all but nine long months to wait until our next taste of major action – it will be closing in on six years since McIlroy, now 30, lifted the Claret Jug and Wanamaker Trophy within three weeks of each other.
Back then, at the tender age of 24, the Northern Irishman had four majors to his name and anything seemed possible.
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Whenever any player wins a major there follows a period of inflated expectation – it’s understandable, if disconnected with reality. But with McIlroy talk of double figures did not seem unreasonable.
Right now, it isn’t easy to see where No. 5 comes from.
He arrived on the Antrim coast as the favourite at 8/1 but by the time he reached the 2nd tee he was 4-over par and a 33/1 shot.
I couldn’t understand why Brooks Koepka wasn’t the preferred option given his last four majors heading into Portrush read: W, 2nd, W, 2nd.
As the darling of the golfing world playing in the Open in his home country for the first time, I always felt it would be asking an awful lot for him to win this week. So much pressure and so many external factors: McIlroy was admirably but fatally attuned to all of them.
What I didn’t think was that McIlroy would blow himself out of the championship with an opening round of 79.
And let’s not pretend it was entirely down to that infamous opening 8 because this was more than an early twitch of nerves.
McIlroy had repaired at least some if not all of the damage and was 3-over with three to play. A four-putt 5 at Calamity included, unforgivably, an angry whiff at a one-footer. It was capped with a closing 7.
These two holes rendered Friday’s heroics, if that was what they were, futile.
This was not, it should be said loud and clear, the performance of a great sporting champion. At such times, the very best find a way to cope with the extraordinary. That’s what sets them apart – in any sport you care to mention.
Purely in golfing terms, I wasn’t all that taken by Friday’s 65.
It was a reminder of what he could have produced in the first round. It was a reminder of how good a player he is. And it was confirmation that poor form was not a factor in Thursday’s capitulation.
No, Thursday was down to a failure to control his emotions, something that is arguably even more important to the sporting champion than talent and technique put together.
And it’s not the first time we’ve seen this trait.
More or less every April at Augusta for a start. We all know that the Masters should be the kindest major to McIlroy and yet only fleetingly have we seen him at his best there, and most often when his chances of winning have receded.
The fast-finishing major top-10 has become a leitmotif. It looks good in the record books but masks a truth that McIlroy and all his fans would rather not acknowledge.
Veering dangerously close to – but I hope not quite reaching – the realms of cod psychology, it has always seemed to me that McIlroy knows.
He is emotionally intelligent and in tune with the world he inhabits. In the build-up to the Masters, he gives the most convincing answers in interviews and press conferences.
This year, it was all about a new meditation routine. In the form of his life, he shot an opening 73 and was never a feature in the tournament.
Last Wednesday, I sat in his set-piece press conference and he handled it beautifully. He looked relaxed, calm, confident and as though he had considered every eventuality. He always seems to find the right words.
He finished with some rare perspective – reminding us all that the Open Championship, and Northern Ireland’s complex history, were much more important factors in the week ahead than any single player.
He meant what he said.
And then he went out and shot 79.
Come Friday night, he could not quite hold back the tears, which only went to show what a weight he was bearing.
I don’t believe there is anything remotely calculated about McIlroy.
If there were then I think he would have enjoyed major success and plenty of it in the last five years.
It’s simplistic and disrespectful to suggest that if McIlroy plays his best then the rest are playing for second place. But at the same time who would dispute that he should have added to his major collection in the second half of his 20s.
Off the course, McIlroy continues to behave with class.
The day after Shane Lowry lifted the Claret Jug he wrote an open – and indeed Open – letter to his fans:
“Whether you were there in person or watching on TV it was overwhelming to experience,” he wrote. “Your support hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m so appreciative and I’ll do my best to let you know that more often. I’ve learnt a lot over the last few days and I’m more motivated than ever to become the golfer I know I can be.”
McIlroy is aware of his own failings. He continues to be his own man. There’s nothing wrong with being headstrong and he can’t always please everyone. He’s also endearingly human. It’s why he’s almost universally admired in the game.
On the course, he isn’t able to channel his emotions with anything like the same precision.
Maybe, just maybe, in years to come he – and we – will look back on this Open as his BC/AD moment. When, in emotional terms, boy became man. If his career is to be truly fulfilling then it’s high time that on-course enigmatic Rory caught up with off-course endearing Rory.
Rory McIlroy’s major record since last win
Masters: 4, T10, T7, T5, T21
US Open: T9, MC, MC, MC, T9
The Open: DNP, T5, T4, T2, MC
PGA Championship: 17, MC, T22, T50, T8
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