Bless the heart of Rory McIlroy who stood on the 1st tee at Royal Portrush in 2019, wind breathing in off the right. Bless his heart because Northern Ireland’s greatest golfing talent, then 30 years old, said he wasn’t trying to be the center of attention that week, as the Open Championship returned to his home country.
Bless the heart of a four-time major champion who admitted to being nervous, playing in his 11th Open but the first to be held there in more than 60 years. Bless the heart of the fan favorite whose name was right there next to the course record: 61. This scene was the kind we dream about, we being the golfers who play it and the thirsty fans who watch it.
McIlroy stood on the tee in the center of a chute created by the grandstand. He couldn’t have felt the wind quite as much as the spectators out lining the ropes. But as soon as he hit his driving iron, that right-to-left wind upgraded his patented draw into a hook. He started calling for it to sit.
Six different calls for it to “sit”, maybe seven, before McIlroy’s ball eventually sat down in the long stuff … out of bounds. And now, save for the stakes and the home crowd and the back tees and maybe that right-to-left wind, I know exactly how he feels.
Like any good buddies trip, my visit to Portrush last month loomed in the back of my head for weeks prior. I didn’t cover the ’19 Open, so I never got the chance to visit the Harbour Bar, never got to see how close Royal Portrush is to the center of town, never got to feel its golfy heartbeat. All I knew about Portrush was that 1. It sits around the same latitude as the southern bit of Alaska, and 2. That’s where Rory McIlroy was brought to tears. Since I had only watched this take place on television, I desperately wanted to see what that 1st tee looked like. I needed to understand the view McIlroy had, imagine the crowd who met him out there and insert myself into the mental torture chamber that is O.B. left and O.B. right.
(A quick aside: Portrush, I can assure you, is much, much more than that. It’s a mile-long peninsula beach town filled with bed and breakfasts, boutique shops, arcades and cafes. Read more about it as a destination here and check out our entire trip in the video below.)
I don’t normally get psyched out over special courses or specific shots. I’m not saying I’d necessarily hit the green, but the thought of playing 17 at Sawgrass doesn’t make my palms sweaty. Nor does the 18th at Pebble. Whatever happens, happens. Put my best swing on it, then chase after it. But for some reason, the 1st at Portrush freaked me out. It could be that it was the first tee shot in a 54-hole, 54-hour golf sprint from Northern Ireland to England to Scotland. It could be that Portrush caddies and members often loiter around and watch, since the putting green is nearby and you have to cross the tee to visit the practice range. It could be that the dueling out-of-bounds markers (and fairway bunkers) provide an obvious route forward, and executing the obvious route is sometimes one of the hardest things to do. But mostly I couldn’t shake the fact that it represents one of the biggest letdowns in the career of one of the best golfers ever. In my mind, the hole signified trouble. It represented anguish. It was an emotional tee box.
“Don’t ask Rory about that,” Gerry McAleese told me upon my arrival at Portrush. McAleese is a multiple-time club champion at Royal Portrush and precisely the kind of person you want to run into when visiting from the States. He’s a talker, a storyteller, and a damn good golfer himself. He’s shot 66 at Portrush, a number he admitted to only when pressed. He’s far more interested in the stories of everyone else who plays Portrush — including McIlroy.
“I’ll tell you an interesting story about that club, okay?” he said, a smile sneaking onto his face. “I was on the driving range there about six months ago and a friend says to me, ‘Do you want to try that club?’
“I says, ‘Not really.’
“He says, ‘You should try it.’
“I said, ‘Why?’
“He says, ‘It’s quite a famous club.’
“Harry Diamond, who caddies for Rory, right? His father-in-law has Rory’s 2-iron in the bag. The club he didn’t have a successful 1st hole [with]. So we’ve got a member who has Rory’s 2-iron in the bag. [laughs] He asked me did I want to hit it and I said no.”
Gerry finds this fateful bit of golf history entertaining, but I can’t blame him for not wanting to hit that bewitched thing. Nor can I blame Rory. Apparently McIlroy got rid of the club shortly after competing that week; now it floats around the club like a ghost. People sort of know it exists but aren’t too keen to touch it.
That’s the convenient excuse I’m going to use to explain my fate at Portrush in the middle of August. That the ghost of McIlroy’s driving iron found a friend in my driving iron. I watched my colleague Dylan Dethier stripe his driving iron out into the fairway, as McAleese, the starter and some Portrush caddies watched on. “Rory McIlroy would give you a million dollars for that tee shot,” I told Dylan. “Maybe more than a million.”
(It’s a fun thought exercise: how much money would McIlroy give for a ball in that 1st fairway. We saw what he was capable of when he shot 65 the next afternoon. How much would Tiger Woods pay to have not clanked the 15th flagstick in 2013 at Augusta? Jordan Spieth’s number for a do-over at Amen Corner in 2016? Astronomical. And he’d be able to afford it.)
If it wasn’t clear by now, I was obviously going to play this shot with Rory top of mind, and if I was any better a golfer, you’d think I was trying to do exactly what he did. Because I did exactly what he did: a don’t-go-right swing delivered a shot that started a touch left, drew further left and jumped over the O.B. stakes.
“That was a nice re-creation, wasn’t it?!” Dylan said gleefully, loud enough for everyone who wasn’t watching to know exactly what had happened. McAleese agreed: “That was unbelievable.”
McIlroy yanked his second shot, too, that day and no, I hadn’t yet reached my fill of the impression. I pulled my provisional into the rough and while it stayed just in bounds, my next swing — like his — was a lash through the fescue. Frankly, it would be wrong to stop thinking of McIlroy in this moment. The photos of him crouching down to spread the grass and verify that yes, this was his ball — those images live on in infamy in that part of the world. The helplessness as he looked up to his caddie is an image stuck deep down inside all of us golf sickos. I had the chance to feel an ounce of shame in front of basically no one. What would Rory have felt in front of thousands of people begging him to do the exact opposite of what he did? Someday the truth will be buried in his memoir. Bless his heart — my seven strokes beat his eight.
Below is the first installment in a three-part series called Destination Golf: Linksland, presented by FootJoy. If you’d like to see my tragic recreation of McIlroy’s Portrush tee shot, check out that video below. Or if you’d like to learn more about what makes Portrush a must visit destination, spend some time with us there. Next week, we head to Royal Liverpool, where Rors found the setup much kinder to his game.