Golf highlights of 2019: Rory McIlroy's Royal Portrush heartbreak

Rory McIlroy after missing the cut at Portrush
Rory McIlroy after missing the cut at Portrush

Shortly after 10am on the first day of the Open Championship, Rory McIlroy arrived at the first tee to an expectant crowd. How could they not be? Darren Clarke had already spent a dizzying spell at the top of the leaderboard, his birdie at the first the perfect start to the event, and all through the run-up they'd heard about how a 16-year-old once danced around these dunes in 61 blows.

One shot. A nasty, pulled, hooked, decent-handicapper-with-first-tee-nerves swipe of an iron, two yards the wrong side of an internal out-of-bounds marker. The single most destructive shot any player can hit, regardless of the circumstances; a sucker-punch to those in support, and a year's supply of fuel for the rest.

There had been fives, a handful of sixes, even a seven on the first hole on the first morning of the Open Championship. Rory McIlroy made eight.

***

McIlroy had to wait until 3.10pm on Friday to have another go at that innocuous opening tee shot at Royal Portrush.

As he began round two, hopes of winning The Open for a second time all but gone, chances are McIlroy still didn't know what he was playing for - not pride, not even a third-round tee-time, but to find something within and draw it out; to make glorious a failure which had been certain since that fateful beginning more than 24 hours earlier.

But hold on a second: this is Rory McIlroy. Rory f***ing McIlroy, as his former caddie had famously said, two years earlier, in this very same tournament. There was always a chance he would conjure something special, and birdies at holes 10, 11 and 12 had him five-under for the day, three-over for the championship, and close enough now to focus fully on the cut line.

A bogey at the 13th looked to have put an end to all that, but McIlroy immediately got the shot back, and when he fired a gorgeous approach to 10 feet at the 16th and rolled in the putt, he was one more birdie away from pulling off the most remarkable of turnarounds, the 15-shot improvement which had been needed to resuscitate his flatlining Open quest.

One away is where he would remain. At 17, he pushed his drive and never threatened with the putt. At 18, from the middle of the fairway, his naturally and necessarily aggressive line proved too aggressive, and in the end he did well not to finish with a bogey.

One shot.

How many times has one shot altered the history of this sport? It was by one shot that this very player made the cut before a rampant weekend saw him break through on the PGA Tour. It was one necked five-wood somehow finding its way to target that changed the course of his final round in the 2014 PGA Championship, the latest of four major wins. And who knows what might have happened had his drive off the 10th tee in the final round of the 2011 Masters bounded down the fairway instead of into the woods?

It was one shot, on the morning of the 148th Open Championship, which set in motion a remarkable chain of events that ended in a cruel, curious reconstruction of McIlroy's own dream, where the bellowing locals carry him down the last before he bursts into tears and reveals just how much this really does mean to him. One shot then, one shot now.

Only from precisely one shot outside the cut line could McIlroy properly experience the conflicting emotions which were unmistakable as he spoke first to Sky Sports. Only from exactly this score in exactly this place could he weigh the disappointment at having so narrowly failed to make the weekend against the unmistakable, irreplaceable, gut-punching realisation that this was not just another tournament, that he is not just another golfer, and that those people out there matter as much to him as he does to them.

"It's going to hurt for a little bit," he told Tim Barter, his voice breaking for a second time. "This has been a week that I've been looking forward to for a long time. I didn't play my part but everyone in Northern Ireland who came out to watch me, they definitely played theirs."

Rory McIlroy speaks to Sky Sports' Tim Barter
McIlroy speaks to Sky Sports' Tim Barter

The mask of a major champion had slipped and shattered, revealing the same kid who had bounced into public view more than a decade earlier. Even then, his potential clear, it would have been difficult to predict his successes; impossible to foresee this unique sequence of actions and reactions which helped McIlroy connect with people - his people - more than he ever had before.

"It's a moment I envisaged for the last two years, it just happened two days early," he acknowledged, face floodlit, outside the media centre having had a little more time to collect his thoughts. "I don't get back home as often as I used to, when I'm playing over in the States it's hard to feel that support from your home people."

Golf is by nature a selfish sport and McIlroy has been called that and much worse. Yet here, standing alone, without his wife or his caddie or his parents, forced into a raw and exposed form of reflection, he knew it wasn't about him, and he knew that home isn't where you buy your house or where you practice your golf, but where you go back to when you're lost.

"I'm full of gratitude towards every single one of the people that followed me until the very end. As much as I came here at the start of the week saying I wanted to do it for me, by the end of the round today I was doing it just as much for them.

"To play in front of those crowds today, to feel that momentum, to really dig in... it's going to be a tough one to get over, but I felt like I gave a good account of myself today and can leave here with my head held high.

"To feel that over the last two days... to have that many people out there following me, supporting me, cheering my name, it meant the world to me. I will look back on this day with nothing but fond memories.

"I wasn't coming here to produce any sort of symbolism, but to see everyone out there cheering for the same thing was pretty special. I tried my best for them until the very end."

Brilliance, it turns out, is overrated. It's when the cracks appear that we're allowed inside, to really understand what McIlroy is all about. Here we saw a golfer at a crossroads: aware, as he has always been, of his skills and what they can carry him to; aware now of the greater forces behind them.

There's a fifth major waiting and, just as his first was born in the ashes of Augusta, this one will be traced back to that Friday evening at Portrush, where a collision of success and failure lit a new fire in a sportsman who now knows that however small the island you come from, you can never outgrow home.

  • Every day from Monday December 2-Friday December 20, we'll be publishing a new golf highlight at sportinglife.com/golf

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