Roy Curtis: 'He announced himself there when he was 16. Now Rory McIlroy faces a defining week at Portrush'
PROPELLED by the most thunderous Amazon of yearning, a gushing watercourse of partisan craving likely to burst its banks and spill onto the Portrush fairways at precisely 10.09 on Thursday morning, Rory McIlroy sails into the potentially defining week of his sporting existence.
Nothing McIlroy attains in an already gilded career can possibly touch the reaching out and seizing of an Open Championship returning to his homeland for the first time since 38 years before he was called to life’s first tee.
This is bigger by a factor of ten than a dozen winning Ryder Cup putts; it towers like downtown Manhattan over the relative low-rise of Fed-Ex Cup glory; it trumps a return to World Number One as effortlessly as a poker of aces does a pair of fives.
And, even if golf historians might offer an eloquent counter-argument, the sense here is that victory would be worthy of an even more tumultuous fanfare than Rory at last conquering Augusta to become only the sixth player across the centuries to win the career Grand Slam.
It might well have been for these burning, historic, madhouse days that McIlroy was handed his cosmic gift.
Amid the towering Portrush sandhills where, as a 16-year-old tyro, he fired the 61 that first announced him as a supreme phenomenon of contemporary sport, Rory can carry himself into an entirely new dimension.
Stare down Koepka and Tiger, resist Rahm’s thrilling matador thrusts, step into that 18th green amphitheatre on Sunday and announce himself as the Champion Golfer of the Year, and the basalt columns of the nearby Causeway Coast, after all those lonesome years looking out to sea, will at last, have located its resident giant.
It would be misleading to suggest that McIlroy enjoys universal support across the island of Ireland.
If only the deluded will dispute the assertion that he is the custodian of a swashbuckling talent, one that erupted with such unique authority (yielding four major titles by the age of 25), if he is bright, eloquent and generous with his time, still, some still struggle to make a true connection with Rory.
Hand on heart, this observer’s hierarchy of preferred winners this week would read: Harrington, Lowry, Woods, Rahm.
Harrington, endearingly eccentric, an everyman who, by dint of a superior work ethic, a relentlessly curious mind and an unquenchable spirit found a way to beat players with infinitely more God-given talent to the Everest summit, has taken many of us on the journey of a lifetime.
Lowry’s GAA background, the sense of a guy who just gets life and who would be as entertaining on a bar-stool as he is supremely talented with a wedge, makes him the choice of so many neutrals.
Tiger’s aura, the manner in which he redefined his chosen code, his Shakespearian fall, and then, in one of the greatest stories ever told, his impossible Augusta reawakening, leave him unrivalled as the most compelling and charismatic figure in all of sports.
Rahm’s buccaneering style, the manner in which he stole Lahinch’s heart ten days ago, his Vesuvian temperament and unfailing ambition to achieve something remarkable, both of which might have been inherited from the late, great Seve, make him so easy to root for.
Yet it is undeniably true that McIlroy is the storehouse where the greatest shipments of goodwill will lodge this week.
With good reason: he is the local hero, a player capable of the kind of divine flourishes which spread-eagled the field at the recent Canadian Open, a repository of so much hope in a Northern Ireland whose politics is utterly broken, and which dwells beneath the forbidding Mordor of Brexit.
And so, McIlroy will drink in the rapturous acclaim on Thursday as he accompanies US Open champ, Gary Woodland and England’s Paul Casey into combat.
To borrow from the American author, Will Blythe, each of the army of fans who follow their general to the first tee will be "one screaming cell in a vast roaring organism."
At the laser point of such overwhelming support, McIlroy will set off in urgent pursuit of something lost for far too long.
It is five years since his last major triumph, an eternity for one so gifted, 18 fruitless attempts (he missed the 2015 Open Championship through injury) to again cast his spell over a Grand Slam.
This is Hemingway succumbing to writer’s block: three consecutive missed cuts at the US Open, a mortifying fade-out at the 2018 Masters. A series of fourth round charges that, if they built up his portfolio of Top-10 finishes, never truly threatened to make up the calamitously lost early ground.
Can this week's hurricane gusts of partisan energy propel him onwards to glory, or like the changing tidal winds for which links terrain is famed, will the gales of expectation blow him off course?
In the euphoria of a victory, those five years on the fringes would be washed away by an ocean of joy, the nagging fears that McIlroy might never attain his old certainty on the biggest stage, eroded to powder by a tsunami of Portrush joy.
The flip side is that if he falls short, the glare – as it is with all the great talents, when they struggle to locate the very best of themselves – will be relentless and largely unforgiving.
And so, amid the Amazon of yearning, few of the narratives that unspool over a historic four days will challenge the irresistible thread of Rory’s story.