PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — The eyes of a nation were upon him, despite Rory McIlroy’s contention that he was just part of the show, not the center of attention, treating it like any of the other Opens he has played over the past dozen years.
A raucous, packed grandstand of spectators greeted him as he strode to the first tee at Royal Portrush. It was impossible to think of this moment as anything but special for a player who honed his game in these parts and has admitted it was surreal to see the sport’s oldest championship come to this region of the world.
And then he pulled his opening tee shot out of bounds.
And his next shot, after a penalty stroke, was only marginally better.
And that was followed by another poor shot that resulted in a penalty drop.
And then, after just a few minutes, McIlroy had walked off the first green with a quadruple-bogey 8.
It was a stunning, almost cruel start to the tournament for McIlroy, 30, who figured to be in the mix for a second Claret Jug on Sunday and instead spent the rest of the day fighting to give himself a shot at making the 36-hole cut — while only making it worse.
A double-bogey at the 16th and a triple-bogey at the 18th meant a back-nine 40 and a score of 8-over-par 79 — his worst at The Open since he shot 80 in the second round at St. Andrews in 2010.
“It was obviously a disappointing day,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t put it in the fairway enough to play. I kept saying that in the press conference [on Wednesday], you need to put the ball in the fairway here if you want to do well. I didn’t do that enough [in Thursday’s first round] to create enough scoring opportunities.”
Adding insult to the horrific start is the oddity of having internal out of bounds. To the left of the first fairway is nothing but golf course, and yet out-of-bounds stakes line the area just 20 yards off the fairway. In rare cases, out of bounds is marked internally to keep players from hitting shots into other parts of the course where they are not intended to go.
But to the left of the first fairway is the 18th hole — and there is plenty of room. Had rough been allowed to grow there, it might even be considered a difficult play.
“The reason for this is if you go back in history, the club did not own that land,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A. “And so it was somebody else’s land in years gone by. And as the course has developed they’ve always kept that historically as out of bounds.
“And we felt that was highly appropriate to do so this year as we’ve rebuilt the course. We try to stay true to how the course played.”
Fair enough. The members at Royal Portrush play it that way, so it makes some sense that the competitors in The Open would do so as well. And McIlroy, more than anyone, would know all about that out of bounds, having played the course so many times over the years.
Still, doing away with internal out of bounds could have been easily justified, as the course architects clearly had no choice to design the hole that way a century ago.
McIlroy was not going to complain about that. The poor swing that led him to hit the ball there was on him. Then he hit a second poor one into the rough and a third up near the green, which ultimately is why he made an 8.
“If anything, I sort of leaked one right [on Wednesday] in the practice round and hit it OB right,” he said. “So I was trying to guard against that a little bit, and a little bit too much right and got the ball going left.”
It was a crushing start, all but ending his tournament before it really started, after months of buildup.
But McIlroy did not put it down to the extra hype that came with playing The Open near his boyhood home, or the hopes and expectations of those who follow him.
“Look, I was nervous on the first tee,” he said. “But not nervous because of that. Nervous because it’s an Open Championship. I usually get nervous on the first tee anyway, regardless of where it is. So maybe a little more so [on Thursday] than other places.
“But I don’t think it was that. It was a bit of a tentative golf swing with a hard wind off the right and the ball just got going left on me.”
McIlroy has now gone five years without winning a major, and that is the big-picture concern. After winning two in a row in 2014, including The Open at Royal Liverpool, it has been mostly frustration for McIlroy at the four biggest tournaments, including the quest to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters.
Victories at the Players Championship and Canadian Open, however, suggested that McIlroy was in prime position to contend again. He’s had a strong year that has seen him rise to No. 3 in the world. Everything pointed toward him contending — and perhaps winning — in his home country.
And then it was all washed away in a matter of moments.
Asked if there was a way back from shooting 79, McIlroy quipped there’s “definitely a way back to Florida,” where he now lives.
But he suggested there’s no reason why he can’t get things in order, play better, make the cut, and enjoy the rest of what he called a “surreal” experience in having The Open at Portrush.