Oh to have the first day back, just one hole, any hole, but mostly the 16th where he rushed a short one and missed. There is no fairground ride in golf like Rory McIlroy. He promised a response and delivered, shooting a best-of-the-day 65 to close on two over par. It was not enough, falling agonisingly one shot the wrong side of the cut mark.
His voice welling with emotion, he said: “I went with it today. Yesterday gave me a mountain to climb. I dug in there and tried my best. Sorry I’m not going to be a part of it. This is going to hurt for a little bit.” More than that, one suspects. McIlroy was five under for his round as he went to the 16th needing two birdies to survive.
Portrush could hardly breathe, a crowd wedded to one cause, a single organism yoked to the fortunes of the dream-maker from Holywood. His tee shot traced the most dutiful arc, rising through the ether as if drawn by an unseen force towards the pin coming to rest 12 feet from the cup. He only went and holed it, his seventh birdie of the round detonating screams of “get in” from the Rory-istas rising to their feet.
An overambitious tee shot at 17 found a fortunate lie high on the banking to the right. McIlroy was going for everything now. Caution would not be his servant. He had a shot. Just. Out the ball flew, rolling to 20 feet. Cue frenzy around the green. The putt missed. On to the closing hole that cost him seven shots 24 hours earlier.
In the group ahead defending champion Francesco Molinari nailed the par he needed to ensure safe passage, just as Graeme McDowell had minutes before him. McIlroy went with a two iron to avoid the carnage of the first round. The light was fading now. Had the place had floodlights they would have been lit.
His approach caught the slope to the left of the green taking his ball away from the target. He would need the shot of his life to make the miracle stick. It was a valiant effort, chipping to six feet. He stood with his arms folded as he waited to putt. Bravely, he rolled it in for a 65.
Tiger Woods also went under par but not enough to threaten the cut mark. It was, as ever, a gutsy display flush with characteristic refusal to accept the limitations of his brittle body. Woods was three under for his round when he reached the 17th tee, at which point the rigours of links golf on a tough course finally caught up with those aching bones, producing a bogey, bogey finish.
Watching Woods, pictured, lug his battered frame about Portrush with all the zip of dray horse you might think early retirement the better option. Then you remember he once won the US Open with a broken leg. He’s not done yet. “That’s one of the hardest things to accept as an older athlete is that you’re not going to be as consistent as you were at 23. Things are different.
“I’m going to have my hot weeks. I’m going to be there in contention with a chance to win – and I will win tournaments.
“But there are times when I’m just not going to be there and that wasn’t the case 20-some-odd years ago.”
Woods was followed out the door by Phil Mickelson, the first time in 83 majors that they have both gone home early. David Duval, who opened with a 91, took his leave after a comparatively redemptive 78.