When I moved to Australia in 2013 for a gap year that turned into two, my Mam replaced me with Rory McIlroy. It was an unusual coping mechanism but in the curly-haired Holywood talent, she found a surrogate son that sparked her interest in golf long before I started writing about it.
I’m not sure what part of me Mam saw in McIlroy. My hair was never curly and my golf was never good, but perched next to Dad in the sitting room until midnight from Thursday to Sunday each week, Mam would follow McIlroy’s progress on the PGA Tour as if he were me, somehow filling a void in her heart that stretched 16,000kms to Brisbane.
Her fandom also happened to coincide with McIlroy’s best ever run, though not once did the then World Number One credit Mam’s candles, Novenas or nine Sacred Hearts.
The candles have been burning the last eight years too so either Mam’s luck has run out or God finally decided that there are more important prayers to be answered than Major ones.
And there are you know. Even McIlroy said it: “It’s not life or death” his summation of another near miss at St Andrews where the world united in the hope he’d finally break through again.
I have to admit that last year I was starting to doubt if he’d ever win another one of the big four. The man with the world’s most enviable swing was having a crisis of confidence. McIlroy pretended golf no longer mattered in the grand scheme of his life but later admitted that downplaying its importance was a way of helping him cope with repeat disappointments.
It all came to a head at the Ryder Cup last year. McIlroy looked a shell of his swashbuckling self for two days before being jolted back to life by a display of trust from Captain Harrington as he won the opening singles match that Sunday.
If McIlroy pretended he didn’t care before, or at least used perspective for self-preservation, there was no hiding how he felt in Wisconsin, breaking down in floods of tears having failed to deliver at a tournament that had come to mean so much.
Rory was crying. Mam was crying, but it proved a turning point for McIlroy and laid the bricks for what’s been a remarkable 2022 to date.
OK, he hasn’t won a Major. Top-10 slams don’t go down in history but to come so close, especially at The Open, has rekindled my belief that McIlroy will win again, and more importantly, it’s rekindled his too.
There was a time when McIlroy slumped so low that I feared he didn’t believe. He’d talk a good game, sure, but aside from the 2018 Masters where he wilted under an inferior player in Patrick Reed on the final day at Augusta, he hadn’t put himself in position to win, as if failing to get into contention was somehow easier to accept than getting into it and falling short.
It led to the patented McIlroy backdoor top-10. With the pressure alleviated, he became a back-nine world beater, albeit too late.
In football, the best strikers put themselves in position to score even through a barren run. It’s the only place their luck can turn. McIlroy’s drought has somehow extended eight years despite finishing eight shots better than any player who made the cut in all four majors this year.
But, at the Old Course, at least he put himself in position to win.
“I hope so,” McIlroy answered when asked if he thought his Major day would come again.
“I’ve just got to keep putting myself in position, keep putting myself in there. And whenever you put yourself in that shining light, you’re going to have to deal with setbacks and deal with failures.
“Today is one of those times. But I just have to dust myself off and come again and keep working hard and keep believing.”
On another day at the Home of Golf, putts would’ve dropped, Smith’s 64 wouldn’t have happened and McIlroy would be a five-time Major winner.
That’s scant consolation with the Masters still eight months away but I remain convinced that should he win one more, he’ll win many. And I’ve never been more convinced, much to Mam’s approval, that the next one is on the way.
I’m so confident, I’ve even told her to blow out the candles.