SANDWICH, England — That’s typical of the Northern Irish: confounding everyone with a twinkle in their eyes. While Darren Clarke was last man standing at Royal St George’s to be crowned champion golfer of year, U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy was blown off his feet.
McIlroy shot a final-round 73 to finish at seven over par and took cover in the press tent from yet another downpour to reflect on his week. He took his cap off and scratched his head though that wiry mop of hair. He looked and sounded like he’d been dragged backwards through a soaking wet hedge.
McIlroy made golf look so easy last month when he won the U.S. Open on a balmy sunny day at Congressional in Maryland. But during a week of barmy storms in Kent, he made it look about as much fun as a double appointment at the dentist. He got as battered as the fish on sale in Sandwich.
It’s fair to say he’s not too fond of Open Championship golf. “I’m not a fan of tournaments where the outcome is predicted so much by the weather,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to playing in nice conditions in America. I’d rather play when it’s 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.”
It’s an unusual Achilles’ heel for a son of Ulster. McIlroy had dinner with Clarke (they share Chubby Chandler as manager) on the eve of the final round and said he couldn’t see anyone beating his 42-year-old mentor in this awful weather. That was about the only thing the 22-year-old got right during a disappointing week.
“He’s had to go through a lot of things,” McIlroy said. Clarke’s wife Heather died shortly before the Ryder Cup at the K Club, Dublin in 2006. “Back home in Northern Ireland he’s almost like the forgotten man a little bit with Graeme [McDowell] doing what he did last year and then me coming on. He’s always been a great friend. He sent me texts all week at the U.S. Open.”
McIlroy returned the compliment at Royal St Georges’s. Clarke said in his champion’s press conference that he was helped through a difficult weekend by texts from McIlroy and Tiger Woods.
If everything went right for Clarke this week, everything went wrong for McIlroy. He started the final round at even par, but any chance of a Sunday charge flew out on a zephyr to France after a double-bogey at the par-3 third. Then he incurred a one-shot penalty at the seventh when the wind moved his ball on the green after McIlroy had grounded his club. “Got a bit down after that,” he said. “Looking at a birdie putt, then all of a sudden you make bogey.”
Time to look forward to PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club in three weeks, where the UK’s bookies have installed McIlroy as favorite to win despite his setback this week. Before that final shot at glory, McIlroy has another homecoming parade at the Irish Open and then it’s off to Akron, Ohio, for the WGC Bridgestone event ahead of the final major of the year.
McIlroy can be assured the Georgia crowd will welcome him as one of their own. America has adopted him. He has been hailed as the new Tiger Woods. But he’s not — he’s the new Arnold Palmer. American golf fans have fallen in love with his boyish charm, infectious freckly grin and Danny Noonan hair. He was carried along on a wave of American support in Maryland that was unprecedented for a foreigner. Neither Nick Faldo nor Seve Ballesteros were ever treated with such affection.
The same can be expected in Atlanta. McIlroy knows only too well how such support matters at a major. Especially when three of the four majors are played in the States, where it’s always nice and sunny, right?
The love affair between McIlroy and golf fans the world over continued in England as he was greeted onto the first tee each day with a baritone Ryder Cup-style roar. He also got showered in soprano squeals as he navigated his way through the dunes. McIlroy’s appeal knows no international, generational or gender barriers.
While McIlroy can barely wait to make a run at the PGA Championship, he said he has no plans to tinker with anything to ensure he puts up a better challenge at next year’s Open Championship.
“No point changing my swing for one week a year,” McIlroy said. “I’ll just have to wait for a year when the weather is better. Going to spend a few days getting my swing back into a nice groove. The wind messes it up.”
But first there’s the mother of all parties. “Darren missed playing in Munich for mine. I’ll definitely be there for his and I’ll definitely be one of the last ones to go to bed,” McIlroy said.
If it doesn’t look as if McIlroy will be swigging out of his own claret jug anytime soon, Clarke’s will have to do for now. Guinness, anyone?