Rory McIlroy needs our sympathy about as much as he needs help to pay the fuel bills for his private jet. He’s got it covered, thank you very much. But as golf’s major championship roadshow finally arrives at Royal Portrush this week it is impossible not to feel for the man from Holywood whose name has been intertwined with the Dunluce Links since he was a boy (wonder).
Famously, as a 16-year old, McIlroy reduced a previous incarnation of this week’s Open Championship layout to 61 shots while competing in the North of Ireland amateur. That was a course record but it was also a message that here was a kid who was going to make an impression on the world of golf.
The Irishman delivered in the years since, winning four major championships and cementing his reputation as the most charismatic figure in the game this side of Tiger Woods. But on the eve of the 2019 Open there is sense that all of what McIlroy has achieved, that all the titles and the money, have been prologue; that this is the week that will define the McIlroy’s place in this sporting world.
“I’m just going to try and treat it like any other major championship,’’ he said in Scotland this past weekend. Who did he think he was kidding? Himself, perhaps, but the rest of us know the score.
This will be the most scrutinised, most pressurised week of his life.
The 30-year-old knows scrutiny and pressure. He competes understanding that every word he utters will be sliced and diced, that every mistake will be analysed and criticised, and that every moment of glory will be celebrated and shared. He has played the last five Masters with the knowledge that a victory would secure him that elusive career Grand Slam.
Casual observers are blasé about “regular” events on the European and PGA Tours but those who know the sport will confirm that being in contention on a Sunday afternoon is a white-knuckle, chest-tightening experience regardless of the trophy up for grabs.
McIlroy has been there countless times, losing plenty and winning plenty. But none of it will come close to challenge he faces this week. An Irish setting for the Open for the first time in 68 years demands an Irish winner.
There are at least a dozen world-class players who have come to Portrush with justifiable belief that this will be their week, and a handful of Irishmen who will carry the home support. The likes of Graeme McDowell and, especially, Shane Lowry might even have a decent shot at glory. But this Open is McIlroy’s Open. The Prodigal Son returns to make good on the promise he made as a teenager ripping Portrush apart. It would be a hell of a story. Can Rory write the ending it demands?
His season so far suggests he can. He has won impressively on a couple of occasions, at the Players and in Canada, but the first three majors of the year were marked by a surprising lack of energy and excitement. A couple of backdoor top 10 finishes, at the US Open and the PGA Championship, paid the jet fuel bills but otherwise his performances can be filed under disappointment.
We can ignore his latest tournament appearance – tied 34th at the Scottish – and wonder instead why on earth he chose to skip the Irish Open at Lahinch, which would have been a more suitable preparation for Royal Portrush.
That decision was a mistake but hopefully an inconsequential one that will be outweighed by the advantages this week’s venue affords him, not least local knowledge. Meanwhile, the vast majority of this week’s field are experiencing Royal Portrush for the first time. It’s a stout test and a fair one but it demands a lot of learning. For all that the likes of Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson have the confidence and the game to win in any given week, they will be disadvantaged from the start.
The golf course itself has been radically altered since McIlroy’s famous 61 – two new holes have been added since then – but he will still draw inspiration from that experience. In the end, though, it could all come down to the home galleries. Their support and devotion to the Irishman’s cause is a given.
Less certain is the effect it will have on their man inside the ropes.
McIlroy might feel it is a burden, an anchor of expectation that not even his talents can overcome. But there must also be the hope that the galleries will lift him up; that they will be his comfort and his inspiration. His fifteenth club, so to speak. If that happens, then watch out because the greatest story in Irish golf is about to be written.