Tuesday 20 August 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Major drought to continue as Rory McIlroy's woes hit a new low'

There’s no home comfort for McIlroy on first day of The Open after suffering hellish round

Rory McIlroy finds his ball on the 1st hole at Portrush. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rory McIlroy finds his ball on the 1st hole at Portrush. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The shot might have happened out of time, a low Ulster sky trapping Portrush's expectant roars and tossing them back down upon the faithful in a hushed confusion.

Rory McIlroy was reaching to his bag for another ball. Ten past ten on the first tee and, already, the man in blue was a ghost in his clothes. Out of bounds and facing into a day that would deteriorate into virtual tragicomedy for the Open favourite.

When you miss the golf course with your opening shot, it isn't easy to find redemption, the whole world watching.

Any high-handicapper would blanch at the idea of book-ending a round with quadruple and triple bogeys. But when it happens to one of the best players on the planet, galleries start turning white and blessing themselves.

McIlroy's 79 essentially removed him from the tournament. He was later asked if there was "a way back". He smiled wanly, saying: "To the cut-mark?" He soon added: "Definitely a way back to Florida!"

His was the billboard face of this Open but, within 15 minutes of being announced on the tee, he was seven off the lead and sinking.

Great golf courses are mysterious living organisms, capable of deep cruelties. But sometimes they become just passive witnesses to human frailty. On Wednesday, in practice, McIlroy drove out of bounds down the right of that first hole. He woke yesterday with a compulsion not to repeat it.

Was he nervous?

In truth, the prolific use of iron off that tee-box suggested a locker-room of trembling wrecks. Amateur James Sugrue arrived just after 6.30am, eating a banana almost to feign composure, yet - in his own estimation - feeling the most terrified he'd ever been on a golf course.

Charlie Hoffman, first out with Sugrue and Darren Clarke, broke the habit of a lifetime by taking pictures while walking to the tee. Even in that early half-light, the Dunluce Course was thronged with people.

"I don't do it usually," said Hoffman. "But I took a photo of a line of people trying to get into the grandstands at 6.20am. Then I came out and the fairway was nearly lined and the grandstands were full.

"I've hit a lot of cool tee shots. One year at the Masters, I teed off behind Jack (Nicklaus), Gary (Player) and Arnold (Palmer).

"That was a cool tee-shot, but this one I think topped it!"

Clarke would birdie that opener to be tournament leader, his first time in that exalted space since winning this event at Royal St George's in 2011. Indeed, of all the local heroes, he seemed the one least spooked by that 421-yard stretch called 'Hughies'.

Graeme McDowell, a native of Portrush, went to the tee with a tear in his eye. "I'm kind of embarrassed to say it," he admitted, five dropped shots in his final four holes leaving him with a disappointing 73.

"I didn't know why I had one," said McDowell. "Well, I guess I do know why but, at the same time, I'm trying to go out there and play golf.

"And I'm welling up just at the...it's just been a great journey, an amazing journey to get here.

"And, to be honest, as soon as I got off the first, I felt very relaxed. But the first tee was definitely a little emotional and a little intimidating. I was happy to get that away."

It squeezed a lot of nerve-ends then, but none quite as shockingly as McIlroy's. He followed that opening eight with a bogey four at the third, briefly looking in danger of compiling a score that might slip into the realm of farce.

But then he found a keyhole to something, the next 12 holes navigated in two-under par and, coming to the par-three 16th, a 236-yard monster called 'Calamity Corner', three-over for the tournament and - miraculously - hopes still alive.

And there, having missed a six-footer for par, he took two more to get the ball dead. "Inexcusable", in his own words. An ugly drive on 18 then set him up for a closing triple-bogey seven, his eight-over 79 a dozen shots poorer than fellow Irishman Shane Lowry.

The day called into question McIlroy's psychological approach to Majors and the fact that he has not contended for any this season, his fifth year without adding to the four he already holds.

He talks with great openness about the mental side of professional golf, the books he reads and the value he places in meditation, juggling and mind training. "Look, I'm not going to live with the monks for a couple of months in Nepal," he joked before the Masters at Augusta.

Yet that very side of McIlroy's game must, inevitably, fall under scrutiny now. In Augusta, Dr Clayton Skaggs, a director of the Central Institute for Human Performance in Jupiter, Florida - about a five-minute drive from McIlroy's home - was a highly visible member of the golfer's entourage.

It needs to be said that McIlroy's form this season, Majors apart, has been remarkably consistent, with victories in The Players' Championship and Canadian Open. But the best players in the world measure themselves on the biggest tournaments. And, right now, McIlroy keeps coming up well short.

The chaos of yesterday's round means he now faces yet another season without a Major, the impression growing of a man struggling under the whitest heat.

"I guess when you play your first and last holes in a combined seven-over par, you're kind of starting on the back foot," he sighed quietly in the mixed-zone after, suggesting enigmatically that the opening mishap had "almost settled me down".

McIlroy elaborated, saying: "It's almost like, 'Well, that's sort of the worst that can happen, so just put your head down and keep going.' At that point, what else can go wrong?"

A great deal, as it happened.

Irish Independent

The Throw-In: Tipp throw off the shackles while Kilkenny’s soul-searching begins

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport