The Open 2019: Rory McIlroy's Royal Portrush dream turns into nightmare
Half an hour into his opening round at Royal Portrush and Rory McIlroy had already hit a ball out of bounds, had already cracked Anna from Bangor's mobile phone screen with his wayward opening tee-shot, had already hoiked an approach shot into a bush before taking a penalty drop and holing out for a quadruple-bogey eight.
As he walked from first green to second tee the mood at Portrush changed. He had played one hole and already he was eight shots behind. It was 10.30am on what was supposed to be one of the biggest days of his professional career, spent in the bosom of his home country on a golf course he has only happy memories of, but how quickly it turned. From Portrush to eerie hush in 30 minutes.
All along the route of the second hole you could hear chatter from behind the ropes. "I don't believe this," said one of his supporters. "I've never seen anything like it," said another. "Nightmare," said a third. The masses had come to cheer him, not pity him, but what else could they do?
A missed tiddler on the 16th green cost him two more shots. A failed hack out of heavy rough on 18 and a wild approach to the green cost him three more. McIlroy has haemorrhaged shots in major championships in the past, he's had his mettle questioned, his ability to grind his way through difficult times put under the microscope, but the context here was everything.
This wasn't just a Portrush Open, it was his Portrush Open. His place. His people. The course he has known since he was a child. The venue he campaigned for. The one that brought a smile to his face every time its name was mentioned. He shot 79. South Africa's Dylan Frittelli, with a world ranking of 92, beat him by 11 shots. France's Romain Langasque, the 104th best player, beat him by 10.
"At the end of the day I'm still the same person," said McIlroy afterwards. "I'm going to go back and see my family, see my friends, and hopefully they don't think any less of me after a performance like that."
Of course they won't, but that's not the point. Five years on from winning his last major McIlroy now has an almighty fight on his hands to make the cut on Friday. At the Masters this year he finished eight shots behind the winner Tiger Woods. At the US PGA he was nine behind Brooks Koepka. At the US Open he was eight behind Gary Woodland. He's now losing majors by similar numbers he used to win them by, in his early days as a golfing king.
Those memories are distant and you really have to wonder if he has it in him to bring them back. The ability? That's in him, all right. But many guys have the ability nowadays. It's the other stuff that separates them. The dig, the steely focus, the refusal to let a bad day get worse.
Since Mcllroy's last major win, the US PGA in 2014, Jordan Spieth has won three majors and Brooks Koepka has won four. Twelve different players have won majors, 11 of them winning their first major. The brutal reality of the game now is that these things are getting harder to win by the year as the standard rockets and the list of contenders grows.
McIlroy has been overtaken on both sides. Koepka, the cold-blooded golfing assassin that he is, turns up and again puts himself bang in contention. McIlroy turns up and talks about his failure to trust the wind on an 18-inch putt. We're talking different animals here. If everything goes McIlroy's way then he's the most natural and the most brilliant of them all. When things go against him, he can be, just as he was on Thursday, ordinary. Oh so ordinary.
He said on Wednesday that having The Open at Portrush was surreal, but nothing was as surreal as that opening hole calamity. Why did he go out of bounds on left? Because he'd gone out of bounds on the right in practice the day before and he still had that error in his head.
What was he doing going out of bounds on the right? He didn't explain. Two shots off the same tee to a generous fairway and he doesn't keep either of them in play? It's impossible to know if that's the pressure of the week or not. No matter the explanation, it's not good. Some of the things McIlroy did out there were embarrassing for a player of his class.
His missed a sitter on 16. It was a moment that made you look away. The explanation was detailed, as is the norm with McIlroy. He talked a whole lot better than he played in his opening round.
"I should have trusted the wind," he said of a putt that he could have holed with his cap on a normal day. "I'm sort of talking to myself about the last putt (his third on that green). It's not like my head is going to Kelly's tonight. I'm berating myself about the putt I just hit (and missed) and went to tap it in and didn't."
All of this begged the question, in this murderously competitive era in golf, of when, if ever, is he going to win another one of these things? In his news conference on the eve of the Open Championship McIlroy spoke of his intention to enjoy what lay ahead of him at Portrush, to soak it up, to roll with it, to play with a sense of freedom. He said he was going to smell the roses.
That sounded unconvincing at the time. It sounded like a guy who was trying to talk things down in his head for fear of the enormity of the occasion taking over. It sounded like a guy overcompensating. He said that he didn't feel like he was the centre of attention. Given that everybody but everybody was writing and talking about him, we only speculate on where that notion came from.
From the land of denial, perhaps. This Open was always about Rory. Even when he signed for a score of eight-over it was still about Rory. He's played 18 majors since winning one. Unless he finds his inner kid and plays the kind of the golf he played when setting a new course record here as a teenager then he might not be around at the weekend. It wasn't supposed to be like this.