[PHOTO: Michael Reaves]

In many ways, this will be the most egregiously messed up thing I’ve ever written about Rory McIlroy, and I once wrote and published a long break-up letter to him. What I’m about to say is a curse, a jinx, a taboo, and it should be a federal crime. I would pre-emptively throw myself in jail if the police allowed that sort of thing. (I’m pretty sure they don’t.)

Nevertheless, I already think this is Rory McIlroy’s best chance to win a major championship in a decade.

Yes, I realise Scottie Scheffler’s red-hot form appears to have carried on into fatherhood. Yes, I realise McIlroy is currently four shots behind the leader after his opening 66. Yes, I realise he has held 54-hole leads at multiple majors in that span which technically represent “better opportunities”. Yes, I did call the local police, and yes, I was correct that they won’t let me jail myself. The sergeant made it clear that it’s completely off the table, and not to call him again.

But hear me out because I’m actually serious: Rory really shouldn’t be playing this well. The man just filed for divorce, which means he should be living in an underwhelming apartment, trying to learn how to iron his pants, and eating exclusively peanut butter sandwiches. Instead, he’s bringing new meaning to the word “compartmentalisation”, and at Quail Hollow last Sunday, he put together one of the most impressive, inspiring final rounds of his entire career.

Now, at Valhalla, he’s finished his first round at five-under, and the man he trails by four shots is the same man whose soul he put into a tiny box and detonated with dynamite last weekend. With absolute respect to Xander Schauffele, and his incredible game in 2024, the dog of victory does not seem to be baying from within, and nothing about his opening-round 62 feels sustainable over 72 holes. The other man between Rory and first place, Tony Finau, is just Xander before Xander; an equally dubious proposition vis-a-vis winning. Even the greatest contender to come, Scheffler, is in the midst of a huge life moment that could hinder him enough to give Rory a critical edge; the timing looks perfect.

In other words, he’s positioned himself well, which I grant you shouldn’t mean very much in a world where literally every single time he’s positioned himself well over the past 10 years, he’s managed to blow it in a variety of slightly different but ultimately predictable ways.

Photo: Andrew Redington

So why does this feel different? Why does it feel like the atmosphere around Rory has turned from defensive to offensive? Why does it feel like he’s the thoroughbred with his ears pinned back again? Why does it feel like this first round was the most important of all, to cement the fact that the discovery of his divorce papers wasn’t going to slow this new, strange momentum?

Maybe it’s the Valhalla Curse. Rory won his most recent major at this course, and there was controversy in how he finished on the 18th hole, which you can check out in depth here. Maybe that angered the golf gods, who convened at a godly summit and decreed that he had so offended the spirit of the game that he would not win another major until he returned to the very scene of his crime. Or – stay with me – maybe there was a “Caroline Curse”, some sort of karmic punishment for ending his engagement with Wozniaki via a phone call and press release. When did that happen? May 2014, exactly 10 years ago.

Or, if you’ll indulge a wilder theory still, maybe there is no 10-year curse, and no ethereal voodoo to explain whatever might be happening now. Maybe he’s just been out in the wilderness when it comes to that killer edge he used to have in majors, and maybe now he’s got it back, along with a wedge game that has deserted him too often but is now working perfectly in concert with his staggering driver to turn every hole into a birdie chance. The Wells Fargo would certainly seem to hearken the return of that edge, and not just because he won (he’s won it four times now), but how he won. I know I keep doing horse metaphors here, but when’s the last time you saw Rory with the bit between his teeth like that on a Sunday, looking absolutely indomitable?

A major part of all this hypothesising is belief, of course, and even writing something like this comes with the very real possibility of looking like a fool in no time at all. And yet, in the long drought that followed his last trip to Valhalla, it seemed as though when the chips were down, everything bothered him. Now, he has plenty to bother him, but nothing hits the bullseye. It’s a fundamental change in energy, and that’s why none of this feels premature.

As far back as 2018, we already suspected he’d have trouble tracking down Patrick Reed at the Masters. In 2022, we felt deep in our bones that the fairytale at St Andrews was too good to be true. Last year, we knew he wouldn’t win at Los Angeles Country Club. This week – I’ll switch from the word “we” because I’m content to be on an island of optimism for now – there is a different vibe. If it amounts nothing, so be it, but his path is clear, the omens are good and Valhalla is his to conquer.