PORTRUSH, NORTHERN IRELAND | By the time Rory McIlroy left Royal Portrush late Friday afternoon, his head and heart still spinning with conflicting emotions, there was a hint of blue sky at the end of a grey cloud bank over the Irish Sea.
A splash of sunshine on the horizon, a final subtle touch at the end of two days unlike any other in McIlroy’s marvelous career.
He left the Open two days too soon, undone by a soul-searing 79 on the first day when McIlroy began his long-awaited homeland Open by swatting his opening tee shot out of bounds, a profound disappointment on every level.
A day later, McIlroy set the modern course record of 65 at the redesigned course where he posted 61 as a 16-year old, fueling his legend. He came within a swing of making the cut, seemingly carried as much by the collective spirit of the thousands of Ulstermen and Irishmen as by his own proud golf.
It was, over the course of two days, heartbreaking and heartwarming, the standing ovation from fans horseshoed into great grandstands around the 18th green Friday afternoon imprinting themselves on the 30-year old who began the tournament playing for himself and ended it playing for everyone else, too.
At the end of a long Friday when McIlroy couldn’t make one more birdie and couldn’t forget the missed 1-foot putt from Thursday afternoon, he wrapped himself in the cheers and the satisfaction of having shown his best one day after enduring the worst.
He didn’t want to let the noise go. He lives in the States now and doesn’t get back to Northern Ireland often and confessed it’s easy to lose sight of how the people he grew up with feel about him.
When McIlroy felt it Friday afternoon, turning a lost cause into the cause of the day as he tried to make the weekend, he was touched.
“As much as I came here at the start of the week saying I wanted to do it for me, by the end of the round there (Friday) 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,” McIlroy said.
“It’s a moment I envisaged for the last few years; it just happened two days early.”
McIlroy’s opening round changed the tenor of the first day, dulling the edge on the excitement that had been building literally for years around Portrush. The impact was sudden, unexpected and overwhelming.
“It was such a blip, it was so out of the blue.” – Rory McIlroy on his first-round 79
McIlroy spent Thursday night in a rented house with his wife, Erica, where they watched a couple of episodes of ‘The Sinner.’
“Opened a bottle of wine, finished a bottle of wine,” McIlroy said.
He slept well, he said, refusing to beat himself up no matter the level of his disappointment. Along with Brooks Koepka, McIlroy has been the game’s best player this year and what happened Thursday was like falling into a hole he never saw.
“It was such a blip, it was so out of the blue,” McIlroy said.
He got up Friday morning intent on playing well and played a round he’ll likely never forget.
“I will look back on this day with nothing but fond memories and fondness, positivity,” McIlroy said.
There’s another tournament next week in Memphis, the FedEx Cup playoffs and a busy fall on his schedule. But McIlroy can never get back what happened in an Open he’ll never forget.
“I tried my best for them until the very end. I just came up a little short,” McIlroy said.
“It’s hard. It’s mixed emotions. I’m disappointed, but I’m happy. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now.”
It was time for him to leave. As McIlroy left, he walked toward the sunshine on the horizon.
The gallery was thick for Rory McIlroy, including here on the seventh hole in the second round. Photo: Andrew Redington, Getty Images
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