PORTRUSH, Northern — Rory McIlroy once shot a course-record 61 at Portrush. After one hole of this British Open, he needed to go 14-under the rest of the way to match it.
On No. 1, McIlroy hit all sorts of things you don’t want to hit: a woman’s cell phone, a second tee shot, a ball into an unplayable lie, and finally his eighth shot of the hole. The weather can be nasty around here in July, but nobody expected to see a snowman next to McIlroy’s name.
McIlroy finished with an eight-over 79. The question is why. Did he just have a bad day at the office? Or was he too excited by an Open Championship in his home country? Both explanations are probably too simple.
You can fairly say that all the anticipation—not just in the month since the last major, not just in the year since the last Open, but the five years since the R&A announced the Open would return to Northern Ireland—and the excitement faded with one shot. Worse, the shot was not even a driver. McIlroy hooked an iron and the wind took care of the rest.
The shot would not have been considered out of bounds on most courses, but McIlroy, of all people, cannot complain about the local rules. He is, after all, as much of a local as most of the people in the gallery.
When he was asked if the internal out of bounds is unfair, McIlroy said, “It’s the way it’s always been. So no, not really.”
Did playing a rare Northern Ireland Open make him nervous? It’s easy to say yes. McIlroy said, “I don’t think it was that. It was a bit tentative golf swing with a hard wind off the right.” He said he was no more nervous than he normally is for an Open. He said if anything, he was worried about missing right (which is also out of bounds) because he had missed right in his practice round Wednesday.
We can fairly say that McIlroy, even more than most great golfers, needs a clear mind to play well. He needs to feel free, and he is conscious of it. On Tuesday, he said he hadn’t played Royal Portrush a ton in recent months, which was by design: “I feel like you can—for me sometimes, you know—you play a golf course so much, you start looking at the places where you don't want to hit it.”
This was, of course, exactly what happened on that opening tee shot. He thought about not hitting it right, and so he hit it left. This is also what seems to happen to him sometimes at Augusta National, where he has accumulated more than the average allotment of demons. It makes as much sense to say he was worried about missing right as it does to say he felt the pressure of playing in Northern Ireland.
How do you make an eight? As any golfer can tell you: easily. It was an embarrassing start for McIlroy … but it was, incredibly, not the most embarrassing moment of his day.
That happened on 16. McIlroy had done a pretty good job of recovering. He birdied Nos. 7 and 9 and sat at three-over, which was just good enough for the fans here to imagine him making the cut and then making a run toward contention over the weekend. (The key word there: imagine.)
Then McIlroy lined up a six-foot par putt on 16, knowing he should aim just left on a normal day, but wondering if the wind would affect his line. He aimed left, and missed. And he thought “I should have trusted the wind” as he tapped his bogey putt … he missed that, too.
“The one I’m disappointed in the most is the little short putt on 16,” he said. “That was inexcusable … I’m still talking to myself about the last putt. It’s not like my head went to Kelly’s (a Portrush club) or something.”
And that was it: The end for McIlroy. He was five-over. The leaderboard was filled with big names and major-championship threats who were under par: Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth and Sergio Garcia and Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren. McIlroy at his best may play golf better than anybody else in the world. But even his best would not be good enough now.
Then he hit a lousy tee shot on 18, hacked at a second shot that refused to move, put his ball right of the green, and made triple-bogey. Why? Who knows? Maybe just a lousy hole. Maybe he was still mad at himself for what happened on 16.
McIlroy finished, signed for his 79, signed a flag for a marshal, hopped a fence on his way to media interviews, and showed patience and a great sense of humor with the media. He has occasionally been known to duck the media after a lousy day, but this time he handled it perfectly. Somebody asked him if there is “a way back” now and he joked about “a way back to Florida.”
McIlroy said, “I’d be disappointed regardless. Whether it was here or St. Andrew’s or Birkdale or any of the other tournaments or majors.” And now he will come back Friday and try to make the cut, because it’s the Open, because it’s in Northern Ireland, and mostly because that’s what he does.