Fourteen years after bringing the Dunluce course to its knees as a 16-year-old amateur, Rory McIlroy returns with dreams and expectations of adding to his four majors with another Open victory.
On the tournament’s eve, Brian Wacker met with the older, wiser and experienced Northern Irishman to discuss a very emotional homecoming for our sister magazine, Golf World.
The first bogey-free round that Rory McIlroy ever shot came when he was 16-years-old. More notable that day, though, were the red numbers that the teenager did make at Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Links Course. Longtime bar steward Hugh Gault was working in the halfway house on a mostly windless July afternoon during the 2005 North of Ireland Championship when the phone rang with a call from inside the bar at the clubhouse.
“They said ‘You won’t believe what Rory just shot!'” he recalls now with the enthusiasm of a man who is still in disbelief. The answer, as has become well-known, was a course-record 61 that included nine birdies, an eagle and a closing 28.
Nearly 15 years later, McIlroy’s career has delivered on the promise he showed then. He is a four-time major champion, having joined the shortlist of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Bobby Jones as the only players to have captured four majors by the age of 25; has amassed 18 additional titles between the PGA and European Tours; and has spent a total of 95 weeks of his career ranked No.1 in the world. He is also a veteran of four victorious European Ryder Cup teams, has won both the Race to Dubai and the FedEx Cup and has amassed a net worth north of $130 million from on- and off-course earnings.
This July, the prodigal son is also coming home, with The Open Championship returning to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951, when Max Faulkner raised the claret jug for his one and only major championship. It will also mark just the second time in the event’s 148 playings that the tournament will take place outside of Scotland or England. And with McIlroy having grown up just an hour’s drive to the south, in Holywood, County Down, it is guaranteed he will be if not the betting favourite, then the favourite of the fans lining the fairways of the Harry Colt masterpiece that sits along the North Antrim Causeway Coast, overlooked from the west by the hills of Inishowen and from the east by the ruins of the Dunluce Castle.
How big would a McIlroy win be at this particular Open? Historically, it would place him alongside Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros, Phil Mickelson, Peter Thomson, James Braid and John H Taylor – rarefied air with only 13 players in history having won more majors. Personally, well … When McIlroy was asked recently if he still planned on being at the following week’s World Golf Championships event in Memphis, Tennessee, he responded, more than halfseriously,
“I think the only way I wouldn’t play Memphis is if something pretty special were to happen in Portrush. I could still be drunk on the first tee on Thursday.” Indeed.
The elephant in the room
Yet as McIlroy, now 30 and settled into a comfortable married life that includes lucrative endorsement deals from Nike and TaylorMade, among others; residency in the United States with an $11 million, 13,000-square-foot palace inside the gates of the prestigious Bears Club in South Florida that formerly belonged to Ernie Els; and a slew of bespoke automobiles that includes multiple Ferraris as well as a tricked out Bugatti, questions abound as his major cups runneth dry of late.
It has been nearly five full years since McIlroy raised one of golf’s four biggest trophies in celebration, having last done so at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, where Nick Faldo, commentating for the CBS broadcast in America, dubbed him a baby-faced assassin. Often, at least in the years since, however, McIlroy has been the one to shoot down his own chances when it has come to collecting more major hardware.
Four of the last five years at the Masters, he has finished in the top 10 but costly mental mistakes on the weekend in 2016, ’17 and ’18 proved too much to overcome in his pursuit of the elusive green jacket, which would make him just the sixth player to have completed the career Grand Slam. At the US Open, McIlroy didn’t even make it to the weekend from 2016 through 2018. As for the PGA, though he has won it twice, he hasn’t featured since his last victory in it, netting just one top 10 in the years that have passed, a distant tie for eighth this past May at Bethpage Black, a course that many expected would suit the long-hitting McIlroy with its demand for power off the tee and greens that are largely flat and uncomplicated.
Then there’s The Open. McIlroy raised the claret jug at a rainsopped Royal Liverpool in 2014, mostly cruising to a two-stroke victory. But he was unable to defend his title a year later at the Old Course after suffering a torn ligament in his left ankle during a friendly game of football with friends. Every year since, however, he has netted a top-five finish, including a tie for second last year at Carnoustie. Still, it has been the missed opportunities that have stood out as much as his consistency.
A year ago, McIlroy entered the weekend just two strokes off the lead but managed only a 70 on the third day. Trailing by four at the start of the final round, McIlroy was two-over after his first eight holes before birdies at the ninth and 11th that were followed by a long putt for eagle at 14 to tie for the lead. Alas, victory never materialised as he failed to make another birdie and finished in a four-way tie for second, two back of Francesco Molinari.
Hopes, dreams and expectations
So what to make of McIlroy’s chances at Portrush? His historic day there over a decade ago is worth revisiting for perhaps a clue or two. Or inspiration, at least.
Though expectations were already soaring going into the North of Ireland Championship in 2005. By age 15, McIlroy had been a member of Europe’s winning 2004 Junior Ryder Cup team and was the youngest-ever winner of both the West of Ireland Championship and the Irish Close Championship. Then came the 61 (see box). To this day, McIlroy says he still remembers every shot from his record-breaking round.
Going into this year’s Open, it might serve him well if he could find a way to recapture the same carefree, cocksure attitude from those halcyon days.
“I look back at those pictures, and the more I can be like that kid, the better,” he tells Golf World now, older, wiser and more experienced than he was back then. The bouncing hair is more tightly cropped than it was, flecked with flashes of grey, signs of experience and the wear of life on and off the course more present.
“I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree, just happy to be here. I feel like a golf tournament is where I am most comfortable. But the pressure starts to weigh on you a little bit. As you get older, you become more cautious in life. There is something nice about being young and oblivious to some stuff.
“It felt normal to me. I had that cockiness and thought this was what I was supposed to do. It is only when time goes on that I realise these things are special and you should savour them.”
Trying to recapture those feelings is another matter. That sort of bliss can only last so long for anyone. Life has a way of intervening, personally and professionally. Consider for a moment all the varying levels of noise, some good, some more trying, that McIlroy’s already Hall-of-Fame career has endured, from the choke job of the 2011 Masters and final-round 80 at Augusta National (never mind other missed opportunities there); to splits with not one but two management companies; a mid-round walk-off at the 2013 Honda Classic; equipment changes; an engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki followed by a calling off of the proceedings; Twitter spats; more equipment changes; getting married and starting a life mostly lived in America with a schedule to match.
And that’s just the stuff outside the ropes. McIlroy has built up his share of scar tissue inside them as well – from ongoing woes with his putter, which led to him turning to putter whisperer Brad Faxon for advice; to a curious bout of Sunday struggles when in a position to win a handful of times over the last two years; and the ever-growing elephant in the room, a lack of a single major championship victory in the last five years when he seemed so poised to run away with many more.
One man, two characters
But it’s easy to forget that at just 30 years old, McIlroy’s career is only at its midpoint, if that. History shows that many players didn’t hit their peak until reaching their 30s. Nick Faldo, for example, didn’t win his first major until the day after he turned 30, at the 1987 Open at Muirfield, and the Englishman went on to add five more to his résumé. Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer, meanwhile, each won six majors in their 30s, while Lee Trevino collected four in that decade of his life.
Among the current era, Phil Mickelson won his first major, the 2004 Masters, at age 33, before racking up four more to date. Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Zach Johnson and Bubba Watson all won a pair of majors in their 30s. As for McIlroy, he arrives at this year’s Open in relatively good form.
In March, he won the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass and in his first 11 starts of 2019 he has missed the cut just once and finished in the top 10 on nine occasions. That included a runner-up finish at the WGC event in Mexico as well as top-five finishes in the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Maui, the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines and the Genesis Open at famed Riviera.
Last year, he produced similar results with a win (at Bay Hill), three runner-up finishes, a third and five more finishes inside the top 10 in 25 worldwide starts. Since his last major in 2014, McIlroy has tallied nine wins around the globe and gone winless in a calendar year just once (2017). Not a bad haul. But when it comes to the uber-talented Northern Irishman, he is held to a higher standard and measured in major championships as well as against the type of otherworldly golf that netted him four of them between 2011 and 2014. An unfair burden it may be, but it is something McIlroy is keenly aware of not letting become too consuming.
“I’ve been disciplined this year in not reading a lot of stuff about myself, so that has helped because I haven’t read any of the negativity,” he said. “I know that it’s going to happen because of who I am and what I’ve done in the past or whatever, but I really have left each tournament happy.
“OK, Kapalua I had a chance, but Xander [Schauffele] shoots 11-under and in Mexico DJ does what he does. LA, not birdieing 17 and then bogeying the last, that was a little bit painful. But you know, when you reflect on the week, you have to reflect on the 72 holes and not just the last two holes you played, and every time I reflected on the 72 I’ve played, I’ve been pretty happy.
“It’s easier said than done, I know, but I think having that attitude let me go out there [at the Players] after the disappointment of Bay Hill on Sunday, and I said, that’s the great thing about golf, you can get straight back on the horse and you have another opportunity the very next week, and not a lot of sports or sports people have that luxury.”
Part of that happiness extends from the existential approach McIlroy seems to have taken when it comes to his career. In doing so he has turned to reading, at one point mentioning that he was reading four books concurrently, mostly in the self-improvement genre with an even deeper underlying theme. There is Rory the professional golfer and there is Rory the person, the two intertwined. But in his view, the two have evolved to become very separate entities. What brought about such a change?
“I think it’s a lot of things,” McIlroy said. “It’s maturity. It’s been having a focus over the last six or seven months on my attitude, especially my attitude toward golf, and not letting golf define who I am as a person, trying to keep the two things very separate, because one thing that I used to do in the past is I’d let what I shot that day influence who I was or my mood. So trying to keep those two things very separate is something I’ve worked hard on because who I am as a person isn’t who I am as a golfer, and it took me a while to get to that point where I realised who those two people were.
“That has been a big thing. And I think that’s been the big difference between the highs and lows of the last few years and the more consistent play, even over the last 12 months. I’ve had two wins in the last 12 months, but even the play in between that has been pretty good, top fives, top 10s, I’ve given myself a chance most weeks.”
To give himself a chance at Royal Portrush and this year’s Open, McIlroy will not only have to handle the pressures of playing in front of the adoring masses and trying to accomplish something he hasn’t been able to since 2014, but find the balance of the boy he was when he torched the Dunluce Course on unconscious autopilot and the world-class champion he has become, all its nicks and bruises and scar tissue gathered along the way included. Making a few putts, controlling his irons and keeping his tee shots in the short grass would surely help, too, much the way they did that record-setting day in 2005 when he proved to the world what was to come.
The only thing left for McIlroy to do is remember the boy he was that day and the golf he has proven capable of playing at the highest stages of the game. It’s in there somewhere. Can a return to Royal Portrush help him find it? The whole of Northern Ireland eagerly awaits. McIlroy wouldn’t be the only drunk one should he raise the claret jug this year.
“There’s something about that place that’s very special,” McIlroy said. “It always has been special for me because I have those memories of my dad playing here when I was a kid and the thing I always remember is driving from home, you get to the crest of the hill just before Portrush, all you see is the golf course and the Irish Sea. I’ve had so many great memories there.” A victory at this year’s Open, for so many reasons, would be his greatest