When I envisioned a raucous standing ovation on the 18th hole of the 148th Open Championship this week for hometown conquering hero Rory McIlroy, I never imagined it would come on Friday. McIlroy shot a miserable 79 on Thursday that included a double, triple and quadruple bogey, putting himself in danger of missing his first cut at an Open since 2013. To make matters worse, he knew he was the one everyone had come to see.
After a 68-year absence in Northern Ireland, record crowds were there to watch him lay waste to a field he’s been a lot better than this season. It didn’t happen. He beat just a handful of golfers on Thursday, many of them amateurs or older past champs. Still, there was golf left to be played, and McIlroy is often at his best when that’s all there is left.
Knowing it would take something deep to make the cut — as in, the round of the week — McIlroy went out in a good-not-great 34. Then it started to get special. He reeled in three straight birdies to start the back nine and got to 5 under for the day. That took him to 3 over for the week, two back of what he would need to make it to Saturday.
A bogey at the 13th seemed to break the spell, but the next five holes would be as compelling as golf on a Friday afternoon gets. He birdied the 14th to get it back to 5 under, parred the 15th and then nuked his tee shot on the lengthy par-3 16th. A birdie there, and he needed just one more in the last two holes for a 64 and a weekend tee time. It was starting to feel like the inverse of what he did in 2010 at St. Andrews when he shot 63-80 and finished T3 on Sunday.
The last two holes were chaos. How could they not be? These fans have only ever consumed Rory’s greatness from afar. For years and years, they clicked on leaderboards and flicked on televisions. Maybe a few traveled to see him in Scotland or England or at the Irish Open, but they never had him in their backyards. This was LeBron James trying to will himself into the conference finals for Cleveland only if he’d started his career with Miami.
McIlroy unloaded on the not-really-driveable-but-what-the-hell par-4 17th. It found the gorse, but he put it to 20 feet and missed. As tension trundled down the last and into the big horseshoe outlining the 18th green, McIlroy piped a driving iron — middle of the fairway with a clean shot at the pin. Birdie, and you move on. Par or worse, and you go home.
It sounds insane, but it was the most dramatic moment of the event. And this from somebody who was 10 back of the lead at the time.
This isn’t Rory’s home anymore. He lives in Florida. His wife is American. He doesn’t go to the Dirty Duck in Holywood. His life now is not the life anyone here lives. It’s not the life he grew up living. But — and you already know this — home is simply where you live, where you’re from is who you are. He wouldn’t admit it all week, but he surely felt the weight of that as his tournament flickered in the 18th fairway.
McIlroy overcooked the approach and couldn’t chip in for 64. He settled for a round-of-the-week 65 and a 2-over total, one shot short of making the cut. The 14-stroke improvement between rounds was a career best for McIlroy.
There are so many shots over the past two days that he’d like to have back, shots that would have helped him make the cut. None maybe more so than this short bogey putt on the par-3 16th on Thursday. If you make the cut, anything can go down. Justin Rose squeaked in last year at Carnoustie and finished T2 on Sunday.
There was a bit of commentary around McIlroy’s round on Thursday after he missed that 2-foot putt on the 16th hole that he could not possibly care less about any of this. That’s actually the opposite of the problem, and what went down after he signed for that 65 was telling.
McIlroy, not generally one for nostalgia or this kind of emotion, couldn’t speak. His mouth trembled, and the effort it took for him to not break down over it all seemed even greater than the effort he put into that outrageous 31 on the back.
Rory McIlroy cares a lot about a lot of different things. I won’t pretend to know all of them, but it became clear as he walked his way through that interview that returning to this place at Royal Portrush meant a great deal.
“It was awesome,” he told Golf Channel after the round. “Sort of emotional. I feel like I get a lot of great support anywhere I go, but I really felt it today for whatever reason. Every green to tee, all these people were here for me and they want me to do well.
‘It sucks I’m not here for the weekend. I would’ve loved to play in front of them for two more days. But I’m proud of how I stuck in there, played a really good, solid round of golf today. Wasn’t quite enough, but the good thing in this game is there’s always next week, so I’ll try to dust myself off and get ready for Memphis.”
“I’m just so proud of everyone involved in this tournament for bringing it to Northern Ireland,” he continued. “I wish the ending for me would’ve been written a bit differently, but I can’t wait to come back here in a few years and play in another Open.”
Watch that interview. If you want to know why everybody in golf always seems to be riding for somebody who hasn’t gotten it done in the last five years at majors, it’s not just because of the ramrod 3-irons and nuclear driving display.
McIlroy, at his rawest, let us in to understand what he was feeling. What it’s like to have a couple million people asking what you’ll do next. And he provided perspective in the process!
Rory delivered what everyone came to see. It didn’t matter that he delivered it on a Friday with almost nothing at stake and not on a Saturday or a Sunday with everything on the line. For these fans, he has already done enough. They simply wanted to feel the spectacle, to understand what it’s like when Rory finds that vein and this whole thing feels like it’s going on into forever.
So they might not get to keep the Claret Jug in Northern Ireland this year, and McIlroy no doubt is bummed to sit this one out, but both received something they maybe didn’t see coming. Rory gave them a show, a tournament within a tournament on a Friday. And he got a reminder of what it means to be from somewhere. I don’t think he thought it was going to be like that.
“Obviously, people are going to look at my score yesterday and what I shot — and then going into today with the pressure off and shooting 14 shots better — but that wasn’t it. I didn’t play my best yesterday; I maybe didn’t allow myself to play my best,” he told Golf Channel. “… It sucks not to be here [this weekend], but I’m happy with everything that went on this week.”
It wasn’t historic, and it may not have been the dream week anyone envisioned, but after watching everyone else watch their favorite son, the people of Northern Ireland — the people he grew up with — finally got a glimpse of what they’ve seen from afar.
Just like Rory himself, those 36 holes were not perfect and could have been better, but they were also as compelling as it gets.