McIlroy feels the weight of the past on a slight return to Portrush

Sideline Cut: The Northern Irishman struggled to reconnect with his 16-year-old self

If you've never been to Portrush, it's one of those stubbornly 20th-century coastal towns that is entirely self-contained. Big windows and high roofs, salt air, brilliant cliff walks and sea water just slightly warmer than the North Pole – it's a double gin served with no lemon and a dash of Graham Greene.

Little wonder, then, that Rory McIlroy described his first sight of Royal Portrush all decked out to host the Open as "surreal" when he arrived before the British Open – because there is something hallucinatory about golf's elite carnival descending on the Antrim resort town, with the prospect of Brooks Koepka casting a wary eye on the rich and calorific glories of the evening menu in the Harbour Bar or of Tommy Fleetwood trying his luck at the shooting range in Barry's Amusements.

When McIlroy was Northern Ireland’s best-known teenager, chubby-faced and bubbly and seemingly unfazed by how mesmerising the public found his potential and talent, the hope and ambition was that he would leave; that he would join “Big Darren” and “G-Mac” in going out to chase the world of distant, glamorous, sunny golf and find fame and fortune. Blithely, he did just that. There was always a degree of fabulousness about McIlroy’s seemingly unaided ascent and an arrival that coincided with the disintegration of Tiger Woods’s mythology. The rush of major titles suggested he was primed to become one of golf’s serial winners.

There are few places more complex than the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, and its myriad talents – from George Best to Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison to Mary McAleese – tend to flame brightly. Because he was born 30 years ago and came to prominence after the 1994 ceasefire, McIlroy became emblematic of the new optimism and possibility and transformation of a society that had endured three decades of appalling, attritional violence.


Blizzard of coverage

For the past week, there has been a blizzard of coverage about the social significance of this year’s British Open in Portrush and of how the mere idea would have been preposterous not so long ago. And, as the most prodigiously gifted golfer that Ireland has produced; as the tournament favourite; as the former 16-year-old who ripped through the treacheries and difficulties of the course with an 11-under-par round, the entire tournament was inadvertently presented as the moment when golf was tipping its storied old cap at McIlroy himself. Here was a chance, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime chance, to lift the Claret Jug on home turf.

One of the most admirable things about McIlroy is that 15 years of intense public and media scrutiny has not prevented him from speaking his mind or offering his opinion, irrespective of the consequences. In the five years since his last Major, the subject on which McIlroy has been quizzed most often – apart from the public relations disaster of his golf round with one Donald J Trump – is about when and if he will win his next major title.

Imagine how McIlroy must have felt in the seconds before he shot that shocking and humiliating quadruple bogey on the very first hole

He has spoken frankly through the succession of disappointments over that time. McIlroy's insistence that golf is not the only thing in is life – "I don't need to fill a void in my life by winning Majors," he told Ewan Murray of the Guardian shortly before this year's Masters – is often repackaged as proof that he doesn't truly "want" it enough; that he lacks the dark materials which relentless win-machines like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods used to make other competitors wilt before them. Some people like McIlroy. Others are driven daft by his chirpiness. Nobody is intimidated by him. That is not his nature.

Pre-tournament jitters

After Thursday's first round, Shane Lowry, the sensation of the opening two days in Portrush, admitted that the pre-tournament jitters were so strong that he found himself a quiet room at the Bushmills Inn talking it through beforehand. Lowry is from Offaly and therefore as chilled as Huggy Bear. But he could sense the enormity of the occasion and he felt the huge weight of wanting to do well. He said that on the first tee he was probably "as nervous as I've ever been". Imagine, then, how McIlroy must have felt in the seconds before he shot that shocking and humiliating quadruple bogey on the very first hole.

After that traumatic 10 minutes, McIlroy turned to his default rationale in moments of acute disappointment under the brightest lights: offering perspective and a touch of humour and doing his best and bravest to remain breezy. But it only served to illuminate the awfulness of the moment.

Strangely, the most revealing insight to McIlroy's thoughts ahead of this homecoming tournament were contained in the cinematic advert run by Nike, his main sponsor. It's an evocative return to that course record he set at 16 when everything was in front of him. "When I was this age, I didn't know if I was going to be who I am today," he tells his audience before outlining his hopes for the Open.

“If I can get to Portrush and rekindle a little bit of that 16-year-old obliviousness, just going out and enjoying what I was doing and appreciating that I am getting to play the North of Ireland, at home, in front of so many people that are very dear to me, it shouldn’t be any different. It’s the same golf course.”

McIlroy is 30. Perhaps the cynical view – that he will never again win a Major – will be borne out

It’s that word “obliviousness” that jumps out. Even as he blazed through the amateur ranks, McIlroy clung fiercely to the idea that he could live the dual life of the best golfer in the world while remaining an ordinary youngster from Co Down who you might bump into down the street. He grew up with a keen appreciation of how hard his parents worked so he could afford to chase the game, and, for all his natural ability, he worked demonically to set himself apart.

Wildest dreams

He has already achieved the wealth and, perhaps, tournament success that were probably beyond his wildest dreams when he owned the course in Portrush that day 14 years ago. Winning the US Open, the US PGA, the British Open, leading at Augusta: all of those things would have seemed like pop fantasy even then. But preparing to tee-off as tournament favourite in Portrush was another dimension: it was the point at which those two lives he had always cultivated met and maybe became confused and overwhelming. And so he struggled to keep his composure.

McIlroy is 30. Perhaps the cynical view – that he will never again win a Major – will be borne out. If that happens, it will hardly represent a world tragedy. And maybe he is right to quietly and constantly remind the world that he doesn’t need those accolades and trophies to make him feel complete and fulfilled as a person.

Still, if he can just stop thinking about it; if he can slip into that elusive state of obliviousness, then more major wins will follow whether he needs them or not. After everything, after the fall, he is that good.