The most pressure I’ve had in a sporting event probably came from an away 6th grade JV basketball game against our rival. We were down 1, less than 10 seconds left in the game, and I was fouled on my way up for a layup to win the game. Two free throws to win the game. I airballed the first shot. Then I airballed the second. The complete lack of resolve and mental fortitude on my part was the source of much joy and laughter to the crowd at Red Bank Middle. Rory McIlroy’s airballs did not quite illicit the same response from his home crowd at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
Rory tried to temper our expectations for his performance this week. “I’m not here to defend anything.” “I’m just treating this like any other Open Championship”. But the story was already written before he pulled his opening tee shot out of bounds Thursday morning. It was the first Open held in Northern Ireland in 68 years. While Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell might be the legends of Northern Ireland, Rory is very much its prodigal son. In a sport that gravitates towards fate, it was only fitting that Rory’s destiny was to win this week. But after the first round, it seems Rory is the 148th Open Championship’s tragic hero.
Rory has always been slated to be the heir to Tiger. He was on TV chipping balls as a kid. He broke the course record at Royal Portrush at 16. He’s got the Nike commercials. He’s now got his own personalized Nike polo. What Rory has shown that Tiger did not at his age is vulnerability. The human emotions and honesty Rory has let us in on is a welcoming change from the usually guarded personas of professional athletes. So when Rory shoots a 79 carrying the weight of the golfing world on his shoulders it should be seen as human. But we as golf fans want both sides of the spectrum. We want an emotionless Brooks Koepka on the course along with the insight of a struggling Jordan Spieth. We don’t expect Tiger Woods to win the Masters with a fused back, but if he can win a major in 2019, the leader in strokes gained is expected to win the Open in his home country. How unexpected the Masters was this year, the same can be said of Rory’s first round at the Open. Tiger’s victory, especially seeing his form since, was stealing a moment that should have been out of reach, while Rory’s wretched start has been like waiting for years for the silver platter to be handed to you and smacking it into the air once you finally get it.
For me to be disappointed in his opening round is utterly ridiculous in the grand scheme of things. I wanted to see Rory, carrying the criticisms of his recent major finishes, strut up the 18th fairway on Sunday after lapping the field to the cheers of his entire home nation. I wanted this solely for the storyline. You want to see the hero win. It’s what is supposed to happen. The reality of the situation is that is an incredibly tremendous task. Imagine being peppered with questions about how much winning this tournament means to not only you, but your entire country. Remember the time you shot 61 here when you were 16? When tasked with making one of two free throws in a middle school basketball game, I airballed both. If I were Rory, I would have skipped this event entirely.
I’m not Rory though. I’m not a professional golfer. I’m not expected to succeed on my own for my entire country. So to think that Rory has let down any of us as fans for not meeting the loftiest of expectations is cruel. “If I’ve let down anyone, it’s myself,” Rory said in his post-round interview. He might make the cut. He might shoot 61 again. He might even make a run at the leaderboard. But I can’t expect anything to happen. My only hope is that Rory continues with what he said in his press conference on Wednesday and as a fan I plan on doing the same:
“I’m really just treating it as a wonderful experience and one that I really want to enjoy.”