PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland—Rory McIlroy’s opening hole in the 148th Open Championship wasn’t an inconsequential fender bender. Nor was it a routine car crash. No, this was more akin to a multi-car pile-up involving head-on collisions. A quadruple-bogey? On a downwind, 421-yard par-4 where most members of the 156-man field—McIlroy included—teed off with an iron? By a man who once shot 61 on this Royal Portrush links?
Unlikely maybe. But not beyond the proverbial bounds. Because it happened. Like this: A tee shot out-of-bounds. Another into heavy rough left of the fairway. A heave into an unplayable lie left of the green. A drop. A pitch to five feet. Two putts from there. Eight.
And there’s more. Sixteen holes later, the World No. 3 arrived on the 18th tee five over par for the day. Not too bad considering the start he made. But the finish to what eventually added up to an eight-over-par 79 was to prove just about as awful as the beginning. The details: Drive way right into more heavy rough on the 474-yard par 4. Hack (1). Hack (2). A pushed approach from the center of the fairway. Three to get down. Seven.
Needless to say, McIlroy had a slightly bewildered look about him after signing his card, one that showed a score exactly one stroke per hole more than the record-breaking round he had shot here as a 16-year-old. But none of the above was what was bothering him most. Really irritating the Northern Irishman was the tap-in putt for bogey he carelessly missed on the par-3 16th, the aptly-named Calamity.
“The one that I'm disappointed about most is the little short putt on 16,” he said. “That was inexcusable. Tee shots like the first happen. You can get one riding on the wind a little too much; that's fine. But lapses of concentration like that … I feel like I've done a really good job over the last few years of being more with it and realizing, OK, just keep a cool head. But there I didn't. I sort of hit it on the run and missed it.”
Asked to elaborate, McIlroy gave an explanation that will resonate with just about anyone who has ever picked up a golf club. Everyone has done what he did. Everyone has let his or her mind wander at just the wrong moment. Everyone has missed a putt from less than a foot. We’ve all been there.
“So my putt for par there was a six-footer,” he said. “And in normal conditions with not a lot of wind, the break was probably like a ball on the left. But the wind was hard off the right. I'm thinking, ‘Is the wind going to affect this or not?’ I still played it a ball on the left, and I missed it left. So as I'm walking up to hit the next one, I’m thinking, ‘I should have trusted the wind.’ I'm sort of talking to myself about the last putt. It's not like my head is going to Kelly's [a local bar] tonight or something. But I'm berating myself about the putt I just hit and went to tap in, and didn’t.”
As for his future prospects in what is only his home nation’s second Open, McIlroy was realistic enough to acknowledge that victory is now unlikely. Identifying more accuracy off the tee as the route to the score in the mid-60s he will require to make progress in his 11th Open appearance, he was predictably defiant.
“I definitely think if I can put the ball in the fairway tomorrow I can shoot a good enough score to be around for the weekend,” he said. “Obviously, I'm pretty sure anyone starting with a 79 doesn't think about winning at this point. But although I didn't get a very good account of myself out there, I can definitely play better. It's simple stuff—getting the ball in the fairway, missing it in the right spots if you do miss it. But I didn't do that. And I didn’t take advantage of the par 5s. I only birdied one of those today. The things I usually do pretty well, I didn't do today.”
Still, it must be said that this sort of thing is becoming something of a habit for the 30-year-old, four-time major champion. A glance at his playing record this year is revealing. Though no one in the game—not even World No. 1 Brooks Koepka—has been more consistent during the first half of 2019, McIlroy has, with the exception of a missed cut at the Memorial, reserved his least-accomplished performances for the four most important weeks on his competitive calendar.
Which is not to say they have all been bad. A T-8 at the PGA and a T-9 at the U.S. Open are respectable enough. But T-21 at the Masters represents McIlroy’s worst stroke-play finish other than the aforementioned Memorial. They, in fact, are the only times he has been outside the top 10 in a year when he has two victories, at the Players and the Canadian Open.
Speaking in his role as a commentator on Sky Sports, former PGA champion Paul Azinger was quick to identify McIlroy’s recent failings in golf’s biggest events.
“Rory comes into every major wanting to pretend that every week is the same, but they're not,” Azinger said. “I wish he would take it all head-on. He wants it so badly. And sometimes you can want something too much. Koepka is the best at redirecting himself out of these sorts of pressure situations. The lead is only four under. If Rory could have clawed and scraped his way to one over or level par, he would have been fine.”
But he is not. Making the halfway cut is now his only realistic target.