PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – On Thursday morning, a group of lads wearing Canadian Maple Leaf jerseys hugged the rope line right of Royal Portrush’s first fairway. For an hour they’d serenaded the players who had come through, but now there was some fierce debate with the tournament favorite approaching the green.
“Should we still do the Rory cheer?” one asked, after witnessing the nightmare start unfolding in front of them.
“No!” the clan’s ringleader barked at him. “No, no, no. Absolutely not.”
Not the place.
And certainly not the time.
Not after Rory McIlroy lost this homecoming Open on his first shot of his first round, a sad and sudden end to years of tournament buildup.
On the Dunluce Links that he once torched as a 16-year-old phenom, McIlroy crumbled under the weight of expectation Thursday, carding an 8-over 79 and beating just five players. Summing up his day afterward, McIlroy might as well have been speaking for all of Ireland when he said: “It was obviously a disappointing day.”
The score, of course, was jarring. Especially for a four-time major champion. Especially for a player who has four consecutive top-5s in this event. Especially for the third-ranked player in the world who is, statistically, in the midst of his finest season. But slow starts have also defined McIlroy’s five-year major-less drought, signaling that there’s a deeper-rooted issue as to why he hasn’t built on his Grand Slam success since 2014. His average first-round score in the majors since then: 72.47. His average position after Day 1: 50th.
But a 79 on the course he first played as a young lad, at the tournament he has dreamed of winning for the past several years, once the R&A decided to bring golf’s oldest championship back to this divided land for the first time in 68 years?
Unimaginable, really, even while bearing the weight of an entire country.
Earlier this week McIlroy tried to downplay the personal significance of the Portrush Open, but it was a defense mechanism that fooled no one. His smiling face appeared in many of the pre-tournament promotions. TaylorMade rolled out limited-edition staff bags, with a Giant’s Causeway design on the side panel. Nike scripted special polos with a washing machine logo on the breast, a nod to his TV star turn as a 9-year-old prodigy in Holywood. This event was always going to be deeply personal, from start to finish, and so the first tee was ringed with fans and fraught with tension as he strode onto the box Thursday morning.
“It was a significant moment,” said one of McIlroy’s playing competitors, Paul Casey. “It was a moment in golf history right there.”
And it soon turned inglorious, after McIlroy’s tentative 2-iron rode a steady right-to-left breeze, crashed into a fan along the ropes and settled out of bounds. Even his reload wound up in the wispy rough, leading to another tug left of the green, into an unplayable lie. It added up to an opening quadruple-bogey 8 – the highest score recorded on the gentle, 421-yarder. But walking away with a sheepish grin, he betrayed no signs of panic or distress.
“It almost settled me down,” he said. “It was almost like, Well, that’s the worst that can happen.”
And for a while, it looked like it was. McIlroy failed to save par from behind the third green, but he played the next 12 holes in 2 under, moving into a respectable position on a breezy, blustery afternoon.
Then came an inexcusable lapse of concentration on the par-3 16th. First, he misread his 6-footer for par in the wind. And then, while still berating himself for the miss, he walked up and lipped out the 1-foot comebacker. Knowing that the double bogey had torpedoed his chances, he wrapped his putter around the back of his neck and stared up at the sky. Even as his playing partners headed off to 17, McIlroy stood on the side of the green, motionless, before solemnly returning his club to caddie Harry Diamond.
By the time he arrived at the home hole, McIlroy was looking at another big number, and he’d drawn another horrible lie, and another squall was moving through, making the day even more miserable. Just like that his long-awaited Open was over, and he was greeted not with raucous cheers but polite, almost pitying applause.
Since a logical explanation for the second-highest score of his major career escaped him, McIlroy was asked: Did you quake under the pressure?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m pretty truthful with you guys. Look, I was nervous on the first tee. But not nervous because of that. Nervous because it’s an Open Championship.”
But no, this wasn’t just any Open Championship, as much as he tried to convince himself otherwise. This wasn’t an Open at Birkdale or Troon or even St. Andrews – it was the one and only chance he’d get to play Portrush in his prime, and he blew it. Spectacularly.
“There’s nothing more difficult than playing in front of your friends and your family,” Casey had said moments earlier. “To me, that’s the ultimate pressure. The one at home is always the most difficult one.”
Still, Casey empathized with his friend’s plight. “He’s got so much pressure on him and the expectations, so yeah, I do,” he said. “But only right now, in this moment. Generally in life, no, I don’t. I’m jealous.”
There was little to be envious of Thursday, perhaps only the classy way in which McIlroy shook off his soul-crushing day and fulfilled all of his media obligations, in surprisingly good cheer and with a refreshing perspective.
“I’m disappointed,” he said, “but at the end of the day, I’m still the same person. 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 today.”
Someone asked if he could find a “way back” after the 79.
“A way back?” McIlroy said, curiously, before hearing the reporter’s explanation. Then he smiled. “Ah, thought you meant a way back to Florida. There’s definitely a way back to Florida.”
Indeed, McIlroy knows he’ll need a round in the mid-60s just to stick around for a weekend that had promised so much more. At least by making it to Open Sunday he’d be able to soak up the adoration of these golf-mad fans, even if the native son has no chance of winning, not anymore.