Rory McIlroy’s home country Open Championship started nicely on Thursday as he was greeted with a massive ovation after walking to the first tee. That was the best part of his day, and it wasn’t even close.
McIlroy hit his tee shot at the first out of bounds to the left. When he re-loaded and again hit iron, it went left. This time it stayed in play, but it was buried in the gorse. From there, he hacked out into some deeper stuff up by the green and had to take an unplayable. If you’re struggling to count that high (like me), McIlroy was hitting six from up by the green. He failed to get up and down and had to put a quadruple-bogey 8 on the very first box of his 2019 Open Championship card.
If it sounds bad, I can promise you it looked worse. McIlroy, always confident, looked a little distant and maybe even mildly overwhelmed by the reality of the entire thing. Not just the quad, but this event coming to his home country for the first time. It’s a big deal both for him and for the people of Northern Ireland. And the entire thing was more or less over before it started. McIlroy went on to bogey the par-3 third hole, too, and was 5 over and nine back about an hour into his round.
It (somehow) did not get better from there.
After playing the front nine in 39, McIlroy went to the back nine with a little hope of getting it back to even par for the day. It didn’t happen. In fact it went the other way. McIlroy made par at the first six holes on the back, but he was upended by the close. A double at Calamity Corner — the par-3 16th — after missing a 2-foot putt was actually better than the triple he made at the last. Add it all up and you get a double, a triple, a quad and a 79 for the No. 3 golfer in the world. It’s actually not the worst Open score he’s ever had (he shot 80 in Round 2 of the 2010 Open).
“Obviously I wanted to play well,” McIlroy told Golf Channel. “It was almost as if that first tee shot settled me down a little bit. It’s like, ‘Well, I can’t really start much worse than this, may as well just keep the head down and keep going.’ I thought I showed some resilience around the middle of the round. I made a couple of birdies and got it back a little bit, but whenever you play your first and last holes in a combined 7 over it’s going to be a pretty tough day.”
McIlroy was the favorite coming in this week at Royal Portrush, and it wasn’t difficult to see why. He’s finished in the top five in each of his last four Opens, and he’s been, statistically, the best golfer in the world in 2019. Also, you may have heard this by now, he holds the course record at Portrush.
But now he faces an impossible uphill climb. It will take an unbelievable second round just to make the cut on Friday as McIlroy will tee off in the afternoon. His chances of winning this event have been completely erased. The toughest part to swallow for him is that this could be the only Open he gets to play in Northern Ireland.
It took 68 years for the R&A to bring the tournament back here, and McIlroy’s chances evaporated in about 68 minutes. There’s no guarantee that McIlroy will still be playing the highest level of golf if and when the Open returns.
Regardless, this year will touch off the fifth straight without a major for McIlroy. All the talk leading into this Open was about Rory’s famous 61 at Portrush when he was 16. That cocky “I’m the best golfer alive” 61 when he was barely a teenager. This Rory often feels like a facsimile of that Rory, and despite an incredible statistical season so far — and the ultimate opportunity to wash away the last four years of coming up empty at majors — McIlroy will once again walk away from the four that matter most without a single trophy in his hands.