When you think about the last four full years of Rory McIlroy’s career, what’s the first word that comes to mind? Is it disappointment … dissatisfaction … unfulfilled … unrealized? Whatever word you might slide into that brain space, it would likely be both right and wrong.
Those words are accurate descriptors because players of McIlroy’s caliber should not go half decades without winning at least one major. They are inaccurate because he’s still played tremendous golf within that four-year span, it’s also easy to forget that major trophies aren’t the only barometer for success in this game.
Regardless, McIlroy gets two straight outs, two free passes to pay off whatever debt you think he’s accumulated over the past four years of not winning majors. The second is at the 2020 Masters (a win there will erase any dearth of major wins, no matter the span of time), but the first (and probably biggest) is this week at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
It is a homecoming of sorts for Rory. There are, amazingly, three major-winning men from Northern Ireland — a country of fewer than one million men overall — playing in this tournament, but there is only one with a premium shot at drinking wine from a silver jug on Sunday evening.
McIlroy is not a Portrush kid like Graeme McDowell. He’s never resided there like Darren Clarke. But his history and its history are interwoven as tightly as the sleeves on Brooks Koepka’s shirts. McIlroy holds the hammer on this course: a 61 at the age of 16 (shooting the reverse of your age should be a thing, by the way).
Grown men with families still shake their head about that day. The Open made a mini-documentary about it, and seriously, adult males with wives and mortgages and probably a few regrets get thrown into a daze at the very mention of it. Rory seems to have that effect.
I don’t know if that was his coming out party, but when you talk to other pros who melt at the idea of the Ideal Rory, that day is part of the reason why.
McIlroy and Portrush might not be synonymous, but they are as close as you can get without actually growing up there.
And this Open isn’t just about Portrush. More broadly, it’s about Northern Ireland and the fact that nearly seven decades evaporated between Opens in that country. My pal Eamon Lynch wrote beautifully about the importance of an Open — an Open! — coming to Northern Ireland and why McIlroy is among the contingent upon whom it weighs the heaviest.
Guys like Elliott, Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy know how long and unlikely the journey to Thursday has been, just how distant a pipe dream a Portrush Open was. They must also know that it won’t change things, whatever blather the tourist industry peddles. When the Open leaves town, Northern Ireland will remain what it has always been: a beautiful, troubled, misbegotten place that is too often more hostage to its past than hopeful for its future.
There is the matter of Rory’s 2019, too. He is in the middle of an all-time great statistical season. Of the 3,049 measured PGA Tour seasons since 2004, he ranks fourth in strokes gained for a year at 2.7 per round. Only Tiger Woods (three times) has ever bested that. McIlroy strolls into Portrush as the favorite, not because he has that little Northern Ireland flag next to his name but because he has been the best golfer on the planet in 2019.
He’s also been great at Open Championships. McIlroy has four straight top-five finishes, including his win in 2014 at Royal Liverpool. Only three other golfers even have three top 10s in that five-year span. So all signs point to a vintage McIlroy performance at this major, despite the four-year drought that’s a week away from being five.
Now comes, you know, the hardest part: actually doing it at a completely sold-out Portrush with so many different things at stake and everybody you grew up with watching to see what you’ll do next. Imagine Rickie Fowler trying to win a major in Stillwater, Oklahoma, or Jordan Spieth trying to win one in Dallas or Austin, Texas. Majors are stressful. Majors at home when most people who live there have never experienced one in their lifetimes? If a thing can be both horrific and euphoric, this might be it.
As a North American, I will never know the angst someone from Northern Ireland feels. Like most political and cultural furnaces, it seems as if the majority shakes its head at the much louder minority and wishes things weren’t the way they were. Rory has in the past resented the way sport has seemingly split his birth certificate in two. The tale of Northern Ireland and of Ireland and of the United Kingdom and of how it all works together is one far too complex for us to dive into right now, and it’s not getting any simpler either!
And while sport can’t erase history, Rory has an opportunity to alter two stories.
His own, of course, because five majors and two Opens at age 30 is the rarest air, no matter what happened from ages 26-29. Only 13 humans have more than five majors. Only nine since World War II.
That of his country, too, if only for a day or a week or maybe for a month. Rory may not have chosen the complex burden of his own country’s history, but it chose him, and he is its chosen son. This will be a complicated Open in ways I don’t totally understand. Fowler’s orange will be muted for reasons I don’t really understand.
While the through line of Northern Ireland’s messy past will likely continue into the future long after this Open is played, the people of Portrush and the people of this country get to hit pause for four days.
What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about Rory playing in Northern Ireland over those four days? Is it hope … anticipation … joy?
I think about the video below often. It’s from the Ryder Cup. It took place on a Sunday before the Europeans pummeled the Americans. Rory played the part of the heart on the Euro side. He always does. I think about that video because it’s chilling and awesome, and it could happen again. That Ryder Cup chant was a sendoff, the one this week could be more celebratory.
Fourteen years ago, a child reduced this course to nearly nothing. He shot a score that will likely never be equaled, never touched. It was special. But what if it was merely a foreshadowing of what would come 14 years later? Nobody then could have known that the host course of the North of Ireland would one day hold the Open. What if that day and all the days that followed were merely the lead up to this week for Rory?
A 30-year-old golfer can’t erase the transgressions of an entire country, nor should he be expected to. But for a wisp of time he can unify a people who would revel in it, and he can also reset his own trajectory.
There are many holes to be played, many shots to be hit, many bad (and good!) breaks to be had. But when you think about this Open and how it will close out the major season for the first time (as it should) and how perfectly the stories all fit together, it’s all so easy to imagine.
There is no greater walk in golf than up the 18th on Sunday at an Open. The sun is usually dancing with the sea, and the most intoxicating golf of the year is coming to a close. The last several Opens have been so good it almost feels unfair to think about what Rory walking up the 18th at Portrush last on Sunday with the lead would be like — for him and for them.
Golf is golf, and it means much less than it feels like it means when you’re embroiled in a chase for your fifth or your 15th or anything in between. But if Rory is strutting up Babington’s — the last at Portrush — on Sunday with coolest trophy in sports all wrapped up and some of those same fans slowly chanting his name over the North Atlantic like they did in Paris last September, there could not be a better bookend to this year’s major season.
If Tiger winning the Masters was the best way to open the first of the big four, then Rory turning Portrush inside out and ensuring a country that hasn’t seen this tournament in 68 years gets to keep the trophy for another 12 months would be its fitting finale.
A full stop to the circle for Rory. On the course in the country that once delivered the first of a litany of great moments for him, he has an opportunity at the end of this celebratory week to give back the greatest one of them all.