Fork in the road beckons for Rory McIlroy after heartbreak at Portrush
The world number three must already be hating the eight and a half month wait for major season to come around again
An opening round of 78 could not be salvaged by his round of 65 on Friday and, after some up-front and emotional media interviews, Rory McIlroy faded into the background at Royal Portrush.
There were a good few tales of McIlroy making the weeks of several young golf fans at the course - posing for pictures, signing autographs, giving away golf gear and balls, taking time out for a chat - but the 30-year-old would have dearly loved to make some lasting memories for all in attendance by winning The Open on home turf.
Not long after Shane Lowry, cheered on by the Irish contingent and many more at the County Antrim course, lifted the Claret Jug, McIlroy posted a nice photo and tribute to his friend:
"Even though last week wasn’t the week I had envisaged for myself, I couldn’t be happier and more proud of Shane Lowry. How he handled everything over the weekend…. emotions, nerves and conditions tells you everything I’ve gotten to know about him over the past 15 years."
McIlroy will hate the 260+ day wait for the US Masters to come around. By the time it does, the wait for a Major victory will be rapidly approaching five years.
The Portrush set-back, caused by disastrous triple and quadruple bogeys on two holes in the first round, will haunt him for a while yet. He set a course record in that second round [Lowry would go on to beat it with a 63 on the Saturday] and missed the cut by a stroke.
There are three ways he could respond to it - by his performance-levels dipping, upping his game or by continuing with the current trend of purple patches and tournaments when he looks good but always seems to have one off-day.
Our take is that we will see McIlroy finish out the year in decent form and tackle 2020 with renewed vigour. The three-and-a-half month major season run will take in Augusta, Harding Park (San Francisco), Winged Foot (New York) and Royal St. George. The latter of those four represent McIlroy's best two chances but he has shown that he has the game to win at Augusta if he can start dropping putts.
For some, though, McIlroy has only re-enforced his reputation as a supremely talented golfer that simply does not have the heart and steel to win majors any more.
On the popular golf podcast No Laying Up, there was a mock death announcement for McIlroy and a dig at his recent social media posts plugging Golf Pass. Contributor Phil 'Big Randy' Landes declared:
"Unfortunately, Rory... he's dead. He's died. He has not won a major now in five years.
"He came home to live out his last days. He spent them peacefully amongst friends. There will be a celebration of life... well, it's family only. In lieu of flowers, we ask that you all subscribe to Golf Pass.
"But he is dead. He has died. There is no coming back.
"I just said at the beginning of the year," he added, "I kind of gave Rory an ultimatum that... I was just getting tired of 'This is Rory's week. Will he win it?' I was like 'Look, if he doesn't win a major this year, he's dead to me. He's gone'. And here we are."
Quite the hot take, especially as McIlroy has won The Players Championship and Canadian Open this year and was in the mix at the US Open and US PGA.
In fairness to the Landes, the take on McIlroy was described as a comic "bit" while world number two Dustin Johnson, in the same piece, was given 12 months to live by Landes. Johnson is a former US Open champion but has not won a major since that one in 2016.
For now, and for the rest of the year, McIlroy will have to live with people questioning his motivation and whether he will ever win another major.
He won four majors between 2011 and 2014 before going on his dry streak. Getting number five, we feel, could spark a period of renewed belief and confidence.
There was once talk, back in 2014 and 2015, of Rory McIlroy making a run on Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus' major hauls but right now, number five would be enough. McIlroy certainly has it in him to break the duck next year.
Lowry told reporters, after his first ever major win, that he openly wept after disappointing in last year's Open at Carnoustie.
We did not get to see those tears, but we all saw McIlroy's. Who is to say that his Open failure will not be the spur he needs to push on to the next level, again.