The Open 2019: Is Rory McIlroy facing more pre-tournament pressure than any golfer ever?
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Rory McIlroy is not playing a golf tournament this week. He’s representing a nation.
The anticipation around McIlroy at the 2019 Open Championship is constantly bubbling. You can feel it every step on the course, the same course where Rory celebrated his 10th birthday and, at 16, set the course record — a 61!
The crowds are in a heightened sense of awareness about the man chasing his fifth major. So, too, is the town, where murals of the 30-year-old adorn walls on the streets.
Sure, there are other local favorites, led by Graeme McDowell, who was born in Portrush and still has a home here. Those about town would love to see G-mac win, even though they know he probably won’t. McDowell is the cuddly everyman, but McIlroy is their champion, of Portrush and beyond.
Walking the course on Monday, amid the buzz of a Tiger practice round, you could hear the crowd buzzing about a different star: “Where’s Rory today?”
He wasn’t on property on Monday. He didn’t appear at Royal Portrush until Tuesday evening.
McIlroy played 14 holes and was followed by an army of fans, cheering after each made putt, and groaning whenever he burned the edge. At one point, Rory jogged to the bathroom and a swarm of kids chased after him for autographs, thinking he was making a quick getaway.
At McIlroy’s press conference Wednesday, the scrutinous questions came hard and fast.
What did it mean to be in Northern Ireland for a major? To be the pride of the nation? To have the pressure of golf in the country on your shoulders?
“It’s surreal,” McIlroy said. “I can’t just put the blinkers on and pretend that’s not all going on.”
There may be more pressure on McIlroy this week than anybody else in golf’s history.
Ben Hogan’s 1950 U.S. Open return following his car crash springs to mind, but it was somewhat of a miracle that he was there at all. Nobody could’ve foreseen what would happen next.
Tiger Woods’ return following scandal at the 2010 Masters deserves consideration. News trucks from every major network lined the parking lots outside Augusta National, tabloid reporters monitored his every move, there was speculation that he might get booed on the 1st tee — a confluence of particular circumstances that wouldn’t have been possible for any other athlete on earth.
Even still, Tiger’s predicament was a product of his personal failings. McIlroy has been thrust onto a stage on which he’s representing a nation in the biggest golf tournament in the country’s history, amid a backdrop of a tension that for three decades tore the country apart.
His performance here, some say, will define his legacy as a golfing great, and a win would work wonders for Northern Ireland golf. The enormity of the situation isn’t lost on McIlroy, but he’s taking it in stride.
“I want to keep reminding myself of that, that this is bigger than me, right? This is bigger than me,” McIlroy says.
“To have this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live here are now. We’re so far past that. And that’s a wonderful thing.”
It is a wonderful thing, and it’s why Rory’s legacy won’t be defined by what happens this week. Truth is, his legacy has already been defined, as the player who has most put Northern Ireland golf on the map.
Win or lose this week, Rory will still be his people’s champion.