CARNOUSTIE, SCOTLAND – Rory McIlroy has seen the photos – taken 11 years ago when his round face was topped by bouncy, curly brown hair as he captured low amateur honors at Carnoustie in his first Open Championship – and laughs.
“It’s good memories,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “When I looked in the mirror back then, I didn’t think (my hair) was as big as it was. Anyways, we live and we learn.”
His hair cut closer now and his face thinner than in 2007, McIlroy has returned to Carnoustie to answer a different set of questions. A four-time major champion, this is the fourth anniversary of his last major win when he captured the Claret Jug at Hoylake.
Should McIlroy never win another tournament, the 29-year-old already has put together a Hall of Fame career. The byproduct of McIlroy’s success is the heightened sense of expectation, particularly in the four major championships.
He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in dashing fashion in April but faded with a chance to win the Masters two weeks later. At Carnoustie, McIlroy knows he has not finished outside the top five in his past three Open Championship starts (he missed 2015 due to an ankle injury).
McIlroy has run more cold than hot with the putter in recent months but reaching Carnoustie’s greens is more demanding than the putting surfaces themselves.
While some wonder if McIlroy’s career has peaked – he won his four majors in a four-year span – there’s a case to be made that he’s still in the first half of his prime playing days.
“I’ve always said that my performances in the majors at that point, that wasn’t the norm. That wasn’t my normal level. That was above my normal level. Then you sort of go back down, and then you build yourself back up again. But everything finds its balance.
“Even the 14 that Tiger won, that was him at the peak of his powers, and that was him at his 100 percent best. We’re not all going to be like that every single time. There’s going to be times where you do struggle with this and with that. As long as there’s points during the year where you can maybe get yourself to that level, then that’s great.”
When McIlroy was at Carnoustie in 2007, he found himself outside the ropes watching Pádraig Harrington and Sergio García dueling for the Claret Jug. McIlroy was a García fan growing up but he felt the tug of Irish pride watching Harrington win in Scotland.
It would be two years before McIlroy had his breakthrough victory at the Dubai Desert Classic and three years before the first of his 14 PGA Tour victories.
Seeing the photos from 11 years ago, McIlroy wants to bring back some of what he had in the past.
“I’ve alluded to the fact that I think sometimes I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and just happy to be here,” McIlroy said.
“It was my first Open Championship. I was just trying to soak everything in, and I was just so grateful to be here. If you’re happy in what you’re doing and you’re just happy to be here, I feel like a golf tournament is … it’s where I feel the most comfortable. It’s where I feel like I can 100 percent be myself and express myself.
“I think sometimes with the pressure that’s maybe put on the top guys to perform at such a high level every week, that starts to weigh on you a little bit. I look back at those pictures, and the more I can be like that kid, the better.”