Rory McIlroy fought to control his emotions on Friday night as he reflected on the Open Championship. It’s a sentence so strange it almost bears repeating. One of the great golfers of his generation, a winner of this half a decade ago, reduced to tears – not because he missed the cut, but because he almost made it.
McIlroy shot the joint-lowest round of the day, but he took 65 strokes when all he had was 64. When his third shot onto the final green bailed out left of its target, his fate was confirmed. In the first Open to be played hosted by Northern Ireland since 1951, its golden child was sent home for the weekend.
True to form, McIlroy offered his support for Shane Lowry, born in the south but now carrying the hopes of the entire island. Back-to-back rounds of 67 have him sharing the lead with J.B. Holmes, and with Lee Westwood and Tommy Fleetwood among those in pursuit, the weekend at Portrush will be a riot whether Rory is there or not.
First, though, there was time to reflect on what happened over the first two rounds of this historic tournament, as McIlroy proved himself to be spectacularly wrong by declaring that he was not the centre of attention.
Beginning his second round shortly after three o’clock, McIlroy had whatever comes just before no hope in hell. It was clear early that he needed to shoot 64 – a number nobody in this field has yet managed – and with conditions turning foul, it was more a question of earning back some of the pride he lost in Thursday’s horror show of a 78.
Birdies at the third and the seventh kept punters on the property, but it was those at 10 and 11 and 12 which really ignited the hope that something extraordinary might well happen.
Rewind for a second to Wednesday and what was a measured press conference, and this scene would have seemed preposterous. Why are we all wrapped up in whether he’s just inside the top 65 or on his way back to Florida? McIlroy himself would not have understood just what these unique circumstances might generate; the idea that in failing so spectacularly he might create the opportunity to triumph in a way so unique that nobody knows quite how to react.
Two hours or so after the birdie at 12, which was followed by a costly bogey at 13 before he again got off the canvass to land to final blows at 14 and 16, we had our answer. Those trying to keep warm in the stands around the 18th green rose to their feet to thank McIlroy for his part in this adventure, and to applaud him for showing the characteristics which, as much as his prodigious talent, make a champion.
McIlroy must have been as exhausted as he was overwhelmed. There would be no fireworks, no chip-in birdie, and there will be no weekend tee-time. It was, in the end, the most glorious failure – so different to anything he’s done before.
Perhaps in time it will be the spark that reignites the career of a generational talent. Who knows. For now, McIlroy will take stock and, eventually, reflect on how he dealt with these two days which really should have been four. He’ll reflect on an almighty missed opportunity and the poor swings and poor decisions which meant for such a catastrophic first 18.
He may also become further entrenched in his new-found comfort zone, one which says there’s more to life than winning and losing. Maybe it’s simply that winning and losing are not black and white: here, under the grey skies of Portrush, we saw disaster and triumph side-by-side, trapped inside a 30-year-old whose ordinary life became extraordinary when he discovered golf.
No wonder he couldn’t take it in. The Open needs time to recover. By the time Lowry heads out with the backing of thousands from the south and many more from the north, it will have done so. And maybe, at the end of this emotional week, those buzzwords of legacy and unity will have been carried home not by the man from Holywood, but the man from Clara.