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There is no bright side to Rory McIlroy's Open loss, so let's stop kidding ourselves

There is often a moral victory to be found in a defeat. This one for McIlroy, the author laments, might be the exception
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Stuart Kerr/R&A

Professional golf is a sport perpetually shrouded in a light mist of romance and nostalgia, and I consider that a good thing. We're fortunate that the game's history adds meaning to its present, and that the feat of winning a major championship, or a Ryder Cup, or even a PGA Tour event, is deepened by an ongoing historical context that winds backward through decades or even centuries. When the immediacy of extraordinary skill is backed up by the weight of time, you have something special on your hands.

If there's a downside to all this, though, it's that these quasi-mystical elements are also crutches, and we as golf fans are poorly prepared to acknowledge or handle what happened on Sunday at St. Andrews. Our complicated relationship with Rory McIlroy has now spanned eight years, and in that time we've contended with the same pattern on repeat—he fills us with hope, he lets us down. The year 2022 has been a hyper-charged lab experiment of all the ways he can send us into emotional spirals; the late failed charge at Augusta, the early lost lead at Southern Hills, the endless lurking at Brookline, and now the slow Sunday fade at the Old Course. It's driven a few of us mad, myself included—I wrote a break-up letter to Rory after the U.S. Open, for God's sake. Despite the temporary bouts of insanity, though, it wasn't anything unexpected. In fact, it had become downright familiar.

But let's be honest with ourselves about the Open Championship: this was different. This was a new level of spiritual bulldozing. If you had asked a Rory fan to dream up the worst possible scenario for Sunday, it would be simple: Rory loses, and the winner is a LIV golfer or someone about to go to LIV. The result? Rory lost. Cam Smith won, and as for LIV, you can judge for yourselves based on how he answered a simple question of whether he's going. All I know is, anyone who has used this defensive/vague tactic in the past has been gone (call it the "Koepka playbook"), and though I have no more inside dope than anyone, I'm treating it in my head like he's gone.

All of which means that if you love Rory McIlroy, and you've suffered with him for these last eight years at the majors, and you admired him more for his stance on LIV, and his status grew in your mind as the crisis deepened to the point that he was the torchbearer for the "good guys" ... well, if that describes you, you just watched the hero get clobbered by the villains at the oldest and holiest shrine in golf. Mind you, this line of thinking paints Smith with an excessively broad brush—for one thing, he hasn't left the PGA Tour yet, and for another, he is by all accounts not a villain but a decent guy. Still, given what Smith potentially represents, his triumph isn't just a gut punch for Rory; this is a vicious metaphor for what's happening in the sport writ large. This is the death of history, and the triumph of greed, set with pitiless resonance at the sacrosanct birthplace of the whole venture.

Golf Digest's Joel Beall, in a beautiful piece from Sunday about the magnitude of Rory's presence at St. Andrews, wrote many things I agreed with, and one in particular that I did not. He wrote: "what happened on the final nine holes does not change what happened before them."

Everyone's experience is different, and I'm not saying Joel is wrong, only that my experience was the opposite. From where I sat, the last nine holes absolutely changed everything that happened before, and the cruel truth of Rory's failed individual struggle coupled with the broader forces at play made this particularly hard to bear, and not at all mitigated by the atmospherics of Rory's journey. In short, history and romance and nostalgia can't protect us from Sunday's brutal reality.

This comparison will earn me no sympathy, but I bring it up as a near parallel—I'm a Duke fan, and this past spring, Mike Krzyzewski lost both his last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and his last game ever, in the Final Four, to his great rival North Carolina. Either loss by itself would have been wrenching enough, but the combination was almost too cruel to believe. The rivalry had been more or less even until then, but every Duke fan knew that at the final moment in an icon's career, Carolina struck a permanent, crippling blow. It was impossible to handle without resorting to every defense mechanism in the books, and after those were resorted to ... it was still impossible to handle. It was a loss so comprehensive, and so complete, that there could be no adequate response. At least for a while, it broke a fan base.

The situation at St. Andrews was somehow worse because it involved not just a competitor, but a whole ecosystem. Not only does the triumvirate of history/romance/nostalgia fail to numb the pain, but the best defense mechanism of all, and the only one that worked in the Duke scenario above—"well, it's only sports"—also fails here. This isn't just sports. It's anything and everything about our modern world, and who wins, and who loses, and that could be its own 10,000-word essay so I'll spare you the rest.

There's an old cartoon making the point that no matter how much you fight, "sometimes the dragon wins." On Sunday, the dragon won, and won emphatically. This isn't about Cam Smith, who played marvelously and who, again, seems otherwise likable, and though it is about Rory, it's not exclusively about Rory. It's about bigger forces at play, and those forces being in opposition to everything we'd like to believe about golf. Something this symbolically ugly could only happen at St. Andrews; it's a knife in history's back, and this is where history lives. It's tempting to want to protect ourselves using those reliable fallbacks, but there was no romance in what happened this weekend, no silver lining, no solace. Wishful thinking won't save us. The major offseason starts today, bad news will be coming in droves, and if we don't face the pain head on and recognize it in its purest, most unshakeable form, that romance may be lost for good.