Rory McIlroy tried to treat this year’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club, an hour north from where he was born and raised and where he announced his presence to the golf world in the form of a course-record 61 as a 16-year-old, like any other tournament.
Despite missing the cut or perhaps because of a valiant charge to try to make it, he found out it was anything but.
“There’s a lot of them,” McIlroy said, choking up, when asked what his emotions were afterward. “As much as I came here at the start of the week saying I wanted to do it for me, you know, by the end of the round there today I was doing it just as much for them as I was for me. I wanted to be here for the weekend. Selfishly, I wanted to feel that support for two more days.”
“It’s been an eye-opener for me. Sometimes you’re so far away and you forget about all the people that are cheering you on back home. And then you come and play in front of them, it definitely hit me like a tonne of bricks today.”
After a disastrous opening-round 79 that included a quadruple-bogey 8 on the first hole, a triple-bogey 7 on the last and a missed putt from a foot on the par-3 16th, it would have taken some heavy lifting for the 30-year-old, four-time Major champion just to make it to the weekend.
And overnight, our time, he nearly did it.
McIlroy made five birdies in his first dozen holes in the second round, giving an instant boost of electricity that surged through the home crowd as it tried to carry him home.
A bogey on the par-3 13th slowed the charge but didn’t quell the excitement. McIlroy bounced back with a birdie on the next and added another from 12 feet on the difficult 16th to pull himself tantalisingly close to making the cut.
Needing to birdie one of his final two holes and after a terrific recovery from the fescue on the 17th, his first opportunity slipped past when his putt missed the hole on the low side.
Then on the 18th, urged on by a charged amphitheatre of support, he tugged his approach from just inside 180 metres ever so slightly, enough for the ball to bound off the green left and into the basin below. Needing to hole his chip shot, it never threatened the flag, and that was that.
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McIlroy’s 65 matched a new course record after Royal Portrush had been redesigned with two new holes added for this tournament, but it left him with one stroke too many.
And feeling a full spectrum of emotions afterward.
“Disappointed not to be here for the weekend. Unbelievably proud of how I handled myself today coming back after what was a very challenging day [Thursday]. And just full of gratitude towards every single one of the people that followed me to the very end and was willing me on.
“Today was probably one of the most fun rounds of golf I’ve ever played. It’s strange saying that standing here and having had a bit of success and won this championship before, and just to be battling to make the cut.”
The missed cut also means that McIlroy’s Major drought has stretched to a full five seasons, his last victory coming at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. With a rearranged schedule, The Open is now the year’s final Major.
It will at least leave a lasting memory for McIlroy, even if he won’t be around on Sunday.
“It’s a moment I envisioned for the past few years; it just happened two days early,” said McIlroy, who these days lives in America, travels the globe playing a world schedule across two tours and doesn’t get back to Northern Ireland save for a few times a year. “I will look back on this day with nothing but fond memories and fondness, positivity.
“I tried my best for them until the very end. I just came up a little short.”