MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The contrast was impossible to ignore.
The last time Rory McIlroy held a club he was grinding his way to an emotional missed cut at The Open amongst thousands of Northern Irish fans on a chilly afternoon at Royal Portrush.
By comparison, Wednesday’s practice round at TPC Southwind probably felt like another planet, with temperatures in the high 80s, about a dozen fans tagging along and not a care in the world.
Given the enormity of the moment last Friday, he probably welcomed the relative obscurity as well as the warm temperatures. “I would have worn shorts but I’ve been in Europe for the last few weeks and my legs haven’t seen sun,” he laughed.
McIlroy has had plenty of time to unpack everything that happened at Royal Portrush. An opening tee shot on Thursday that sailed helplessly out of bounds on his way to a stunning first-round 79, a Day 2 charge that ignited the home crowd but fell one stroke short of a weekend tee time and the flood of emotions that made last Friday’s effort a truly unique moment, not just for the Northern Irishman but also for countless fans.
He’s thought about all of it.
The debilitating lows of Thursday’s round. The surreal highs of Friday’s 65 and how in the tearful heat of the moment there was a lesson to be learned that he won’t soon forget.
“I had to probably stop myself from crying about four times on the back nine [on Friday], not because of the situation I found myself in, but just because of the support,” he admitted.
He’s never had to do that in a career that spans more than a decade and 25 victories around the world, including four majors. Not when he won his first major at the 2011 U.S. Open, not when he won the Open Championship three years later. Never.
McIlroy’s finish at Royal Portrush wasn’t infused with so much passion because he missed the cut at the first Open played in Northern Ireland in nearly seven decades. It was special because of what it taught him.
“I just sort of had to take a step back and be like, wow, I sort of mean a lot to these people, and that felt really good, in fairness,” he said. “It's such a weird thing to say, but to think about a missed cut being one of the best experiences you ever had on a golf course, so I guess there is some sort of silver lining in there.”
Ben Hogan once said a hook “nauseates” him and it was “like a rattlesnake in your pocket.” That’s the way modern professionals view missed cuts, particularly professionals at McIlroy’s level. That this missed cut came on a course where he once shot a course-record 61 when he was 16 years old only magnified that disappointment.
But for McIlroy, who has been on a journey of self-realization in recent years, it was a chance to see himself in a different light.
He didn’t know last week’s Open would be such a seminal moment in his career. It all began like every other week on the PGA Tour.
“It's so funny, I was so relaxed in the warm-up, I was so relaxed on the putting green 10 minutes before,” he recalled.
It wasn’t until he stepped to the first tee with the wildly partisan crowds packed tightly all along the fairway that things changed. His pulse quickened, his hand began shaking as he pushed his tee into the ancient turf, his mind raced.
“I was surprised with how nervous I was, but it came on so rapidly,” he said. “That was the thing that was different about it. It wasn't like it built up during the warm-up; I was totally fine. And then once my name was announced, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a little different.’”
Full-field tee times from the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational
Every hole was different.
The crowd cheered his every step, even after a quadruple bogey-8 at the first. They cheered his birdies at No. 7 and 8. They even cheered after he made a triple-bogey 7 at the last.
That support was even more magnified on Friday when he made the turn at 2 under for the day and things became unhinged after three consecutive birdies to start the back nine. He relished every moment and allowed himself to become lost in the excitement.
It was in many ways completely out of character for McIlroy, who has always attempted – like most professionals – to remain above the sentimental fray. But as he allowed himself to ride the emotional momentum, his play improved.
“Sometimes I've tried to take the emotion out of playing golf. I try to think logically and try to be very stoic about the whole thing, but I was emotional on Friday and I was still able to play good golf in spite of that,” he admitted. “I thought that was a good lesson as well. Sometimes a bit of emotion on the course isn't a bad thing. It's just about how you can handle it and resetting in between shots.”
McIlroy has had plenty of time to process everything that happened at Royal Portrush. He and his wife, Erica, spent the last few days moving into a new house in south Florida. “My wife was doing most of it,” he said with a smile.
But if he didn’t spend much time unpacking boxes he did use the quiet moments to unpack all of the emotions of last week. He may not have made the cut at Royal Portrush but he did learn plenty about himself and his place in the game.