The cheer as Rory McIlory walked up the 18th was one of sympathy. His ball was buried in a hillock to the right of the green. He had taken four strokes to get there. This was not the walk of destiny promised in the build-up, not the note of triumph in which all were invested. He finished with a seven, believe it or not, one better than the score with which he opened his account.
McIlroy’s first shot of the 2019 Open was hit out of bounds. With an iron. He would eventually rack up an eight. Having teed off at 10.05 he was already seven off the lead by 10.20, the worst possible entre for the man who would be king. “Is there a way back?” he was asked. “There’s a way back to Florida,” he replied. Gallows humour was all he had left after an eight-over round of 79.
The horror that unfolded at the first sucked the energy out of the tournament. Here was Northern Ireland’s own global megastar leading out the world’s oldest major in the province 68 years after its only other appearance at this very course. He would not be human if he did not feel the weight of that. He confessed to nerves, but no more than he would ordinarily feel on the first tee at a major. Perhaps he could not admit to himself that it was all too much. That as much as he tried he could not escape the gravity of an occasion uniquely anchored to him as he stood over that first tee shot.
“Look,” he said. “I was nervous on the first tee. But not nervous because of that. Nervous because it’s an Open Championship. I usually get nervous on the first tee anyway, regardless of where it is. But I don’t think it was that. It was a bit of a tentative golf swing with a hard wind off to the right and the ball just got going left on me.”
We have said this before about McIlroy. He wins big and he loses big. This was epic by any measure. It could have been worse. At the fifth he was so far right with his tee shot the ball came to rest behind an electronic leaderboard. The ball was buried deep in the clag. He had no shot from there. Fortunately, since the leaderboard was directly in the line of sight of his second, he was allowed a free drop.
Someone suggested he should trace a route back all the way up the hill to the hotel, not to find a better lie but to call a cab. He was five over at this stage having failed to get up and down at the third. The par he would eventually record at the fifth was the most unlikely reprieve, and one that would, remarkably, lead to a mini recovery.
Birdies at the seventh and ninth took him to three over. He was striking the ball beautifully now and with the lead set at four under par, there did indeed appear to be a way back that did not involve a direct flight to Orlando. A couple of putts stayed up that might on another day have found the cup. And then came the par-3 16th, aptly named Calamity.
Statistically McIlroy is the game’s most consistent performer this term. In strokes gained against the field he ranks No 1 on the PGA Tour. What is that worth on days like this? How does that protect you against the kind of mental collapse McIlroy appeared to suffer here? Form six inches off the green McIlroy engineered a double bogey five, committing the cardinal sin of missing a tiddler for bogey in anger at the short putt he missed for par.
“That was inexcusable,” he said. “Tee shots like the first happen, you can get one riding on the wind a little too much, that’s fine. But lapses of concentration like that, I feel like I’ve done a really good job over the last few years of being more with it and realising. Okay, just keep a cool head. And there I didn’t. I sort of hit it on the run and missed it. And if I look back at today, it’s probably the shot I’m disappointed about the most.”