Rory McIlroy Finds He Can Go Home Again—Even If He Misses the Cut

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – There was Rory McIlroy, after 8 p.m. local time, standing in the 18th fairway, and it was not clear if he was there to produce a golf shot or a movie. He needed a birdie to make the cut. Rory McIlroy does not dream of making cuts. Fans in Northern Ireland had not dreamed of him making the cut. But after his opening-round 79, he and they remembered just how much they liked being with each other. Everybody wanted to make a weekend of it.

If McIlroy had looked a couple hundred yards up and to the left, he would have seen the white out-of-bounds markers along the first fairway, where his tournament started to come undone Thursday. If he had looked to either side, he would have seen fans lined up against metal barriers, following the only golfer left on the course who stirred their interest. If he looked forward, of course, he would see the green. But maybe the right place to look was back.

Back to his childhood, back to Holywood Golf Club outside Belfast, back to the washing machine in which he used to pound balls into at night, back to the life he left. Rory McIlroy is rich and famous and one of the great golfers of the last 50 years. He is also a Northern Irishman who lives in Florida, who doesn’t go home that much anymore, and who has found questions about his homeland to be conversational mousetraps. Is he more British or Irish? Unionist or nationalist? Northern Ireland’s or the PGA Tour’s?

His approach ended up in a swale left of the green. He had to hole the chip to play on. This was not a movie. He did not hole it. He made par, finished two-over after a second-round 65, and missed the cut by a stroke. He tipped his cap and waved at the roaring crowd, and he will remember that for a long, long time.

“Today,” McIlroy said, “was probably one of the most fun rounds of golf I’ve ever played.”

This is crazy. He missed the cut! Even McIlroy found it confusing. The disappointment that pops up automatically after a disappointing week popped up again Friday. But McIlroy was not just a golfer this week. He was a vehicle for a country’s emotions.

This tournament means more to Northern Ireland than a golf tournament really should, because the people of Northern Ireland went through 30 years that nobody ever should. American Jordan Spieth admitted Thursday he couldn’t really comprehend what this was like for McIlroy. The tournament has done what sporting events are supposed to do, often fail to do, and rarely do this well: it brought people together.

“I wasn’t coming here to try to produce any sort of symbolism or anything like that,” McIlroy said. “But to see everyone out there cheering on one cause or … cheering for the same thing was pretty special. And that thing was me, fortunately.”

He said there was “a lot of stuff going on” in his head afterward. Part of it was the pull that was even stronger than he expected it to be. McIlroy has played on winning Ryder Cup teams. He has won a British Open and three other majors. But this was his first real home game as a national icon. He walked to the first tee Friday unsure if people would see his week as a “lost cause.” They cheered him like he was leading on Sunday. He rewarded them with five birdies on the back nine.

“It’s been a real eye-opener for me,” he said. “Sometimes you’re so far away and you forget about all the people that are cheering you on back home. And then you come and play in front of them … it definitely hit me like a ton of bricks today.”

The roars on 18 were not for a championship. They felt simultaneously smaller and bigger.

“Look,” McIlroy said, “it’s a moment I envisaged for the last few years. It just happened two days early.”

Someday soon, he will go back to his house in Florida. Let’s not confuse it with going home.


More from Golf