Rory’s demons may be too powerful to exorcise

Mark McGowan

Rory McIlroy after the 72nd hole at Pinehurst (Jeff Haynes/USGA)

Mark McGowan

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Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a sports fanatic. It’s 95 percent of what I watch on TV, forms the basis for the lion’s share of conversations I have, and unsurprisingly, many of my most cherished memories are wrapped up in either the viewing or the playing of it.

But of all the sports I watch and follow – and there are way too many to list – there are only a couple that I get really emotionally invested in. That’s unless there’s money on the line, of course – I’ve no shame in admitting to having cheered on the England rugby team, Manchester City, and even Conor McGregor, all of whom I’d typically despise, just because their victories would mean an additional €50 or so with my name on it.

The two that I get really emotionally invested in are Gaelic Football and Golf; the former is in the blood, the latter in the heart. And in my 40 years on the planet, I struggle to recall many days more gut wrenching than yesterday.

I spent my 21st birthday huddled in a pool of sweat on the couch after contracting a virus of some description, with only the Lakeside Darts World Championship on TV for company. Unable to sleep, I was having wild hallucinations of darts being thrown at my face every time I closed my eyes and tried to nod off. Last night was similar, minus the virus. I lay awake for hours, tossing and turning, and every time I closed my eyes I saw that McIlroy putt catch the right edge and lip out.

Few golfers frustrate me as much as Rory, and more than once I’ve been accused of disliking him as a result, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Like a little boy on the playground who deliberately pushes and pulls the hair of the girl he loves most, I complain about him for the same reasons. I become emotionally involved in Rory the golfer. I care little for his life away from the game, only so far as it pertains to what he’s doing on it.

But being emotionally involved doesn’t mean biased analysis. After playing arguably the greatest 14 holes of golf in his life, given what was at stake, he choked. Simple as that. No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’, he choked. And the worst thing about it is that I knew he was going to. Once he missed that two-and-a-half footer on 16 – his 497th attempt from inside three feet this season after being 496 for 496 – it was only a matter of time.

The glass half full crowd are pointing out that his prior biggest collapse was followed by victory in the next major, but he was 21 when he fell apart at Augusta National and just turned 22 when he won at Congressional nine weeks later. There was no build up of scar tissue, no 10-year major drought, no perception that time was running out. He was still freewheeling back then.

The loss at St. Andrews in 2022 hurt, but he simply didn’t play well enough or aggressively enough in the final round and got hunted down. The loss at L.A. Country Club last year hurt, but he played well enough to win and just got beaten. The loss at Pinehurst is a different story altogether. This time he had it in his hands, it was his to lose and he contrived to lose it.

He’s one of the most talented golfers on the planet and he’ll win many more tournaments before he hangs up the clubs, but as I’ve often argued, he’s a victim of his own success and those tournaments, while being nice personal achievements, mean little for the overall arc of his career.

At this stage, majors are all that counts. The only way to exorcise the demons are to win at Troon next month or win at Augusta next April. But the demons have been steadily taking root over the past decade and last night moved to full possession. Only a young priest and a old priest are capable of releasing him from their clutches. And priests are becoming rarer by the day.

If I didn’t sleep well as a result, I can only imagine what Rory’s night was like. If he didn’t go straight to his vast wine cellar and make a sizable dent in it, he’s a much better man than I.

And this is one of those rare sporting

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