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Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland looks on from the green on the tenth hole during a practice round ahead of The 149th Open at Royal St George’s Golf Club on July 14, 2021 in Sandwich, England.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The British Open begins Thursday. Per recent tradition, that means golf must once more wrestle with its great existential question – does Brooks hate Bryson or, like, secretly love him?

The Koepka vs. DeChambeau rivalry is a bunch of things – an endless source of quotes (Bryson DeChambeau, apropos of nothing: “I really think I’m a great person.”); a safe place for broadcasters to hide when there’s nothing else to talk about; a mildly effective marketing campaign. What it very plainly is not is a real fight.

However it started (according to Brooks Koepka, after an argument over DeChambeau’s slow play), you already know how it’s going to end. With some sort of pay-per-view therapy session, followed by a good, long cry. Maybe they can pass around a bongo drum or a talking stick. Get Dr. Phil to rub their shoulders.

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The phoniness of the whole thing reached new levels this week. The pair assumed their usual roles in the lead-in news conferences – Koepka the irritated antagonist, DeChambeau his baffled foil. Both were asked what it’s going to be like to play together on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Koepka: “I can deal with anyone in the world for a week.”

DeChambeau: “I think it would be kinda funny actually.”

If this thing was real, the only correct answer from either guy is bug-eyed silence or “Next question.”

Currently, only one person is getting anything out of this charade: Rory McIlroy.

Because it’s the British Open, it’s time to begin the annual autopsy on McIlroy’s career. For the first time in a while, he isn’t the biggest story in the lead-in.

Every year, the coverage of the most obsessed-over British golfer in his (sort of) home major fits into two categories.

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Before a ball is struck, it’s time to reflect on McIlroy’s newfound maturity, how he has finally (finally, finally, finally) learned not to sweat the small stuff, how golf is just a small part of his rich life.

No sporting press corps is more intertwined with the athletes it covers than golf’s. For years, that collective has been trying to lift McIlroy up to Tiger Woods’s status, mainly so they can have another Woods to cover.

McIlroy, 32, has resisted their efforts. He remains one of the world’s great golfers. Just one who never wins anything important such as a major. It’s been seven years since the last of his four major victories, but it feels like 70.

Still, his many media boosters persist. Probably more out of habit than anything else.

The second category of McIlroy coverage at the Open is the sort that happens once he’s lost again.

As he’s hacking his way across the course, looking more like a man searching for the Lost City of Z than an elite athlete, the mournful columns about another unavoidable setback are being prepared.

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Even the nastiest tabloids give McIlroy soft treatment. That’s his other natural talent: eliciting sympathy.

Because if McIlroy, formerly the most likely to succeed, can’t win the Open, then, really, what’s the point? To any of it?

The example par excellence of this one-two was presented at the last, pre-COVID Open, in 2019. It was played at Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush, McIlroy’s home course in his home country.

He wasn’t all the talk going into that event. He was the only talk. The story of how he’d shot 61 on the course as a high schooler was told and retold like the parable of loaves and fishes. As though it were proof of divinity.

Being in Portrush that week, you had the feeling of occupying a space where history (a different sort than usual) was about to occur. In just four days, McIlroy would fulfill his promise.

As it turned out, only two days were required. Actually, only about 20 minutes. On Day 1, McIlroy quadruple-bogeyed the first hole and that was that.

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By now used to how this is supposed to work – huge lead-up, small failure, measured reaction – McIlroy provided the expected bumpf about enjoying the ride. He even pulled up a tear or two.

“I will look back on this day with nothing but fond memories and fondness, positivity,” McIlroy said at the time.

The media unanimously agreed this sort of bizarre assertion – “My favourite day ever? Probably the time I was fired and then caused a car crash” – is how champions talk. “Carrying water” doesn’t begin to cover it. More like trucking water in from out of province.

This week, McIlroy is behaving like a few days, rather than two years, have passed. Because when it comes to McIlroy’s golf career, there are only two states any more: playing the British Open and everything else.

Did that feeling of disappointment stay with you for long?

“Not really,” McIlroy told reporters. “I ended up winning the FedEx Cup in 2019, so it gave me a few million reasons to feel better.”

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Ho ho, the cheek. You get it, right? He suffered a crushing blow to his professional pride in his holiest of holies, but it’s okay because he’s rich.

You can’t blame McIlroy for playing it this transparently false way. Does it bother him that he choked at home? Of course it does. What’s he supposed to do? Tattoo a tear on his face? There’s only so much sackcloth any person can wear.

So McIlroy and the media continue this dance – they pretend golf isn’t the most important thing in a top professional golfer’s life and he obliges them by agreeing.

Meanwhile, his professional focus reduces to a few weekends a year, none more important than this one. This magical date has the power to put him back on top again. To allow him to assert himself as the one true heir to Woods while he’s still young enough to enjoy it.

That process seems especially portentous this year at Royal St. George’s, what with Woods now non-officially retired from the game. Golf is in the midst of figuring who will replace the biggest draw in the sport’s history, or if that is even possible.

This time, the pretournament onus falls on other categories: the big two (Koepka, DeChambeau), the form players (Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson), the best-to-never-win-a-major (Xander Schauffele). McIlroy is just one of a large, leading pack.

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He’ll have other Opens and other chances. His cheerleaders will shake their pompoms before all of them because everyone loves a comeback.

But both McIlroy and his press agents must realize he will never again get an opportunity as symbolically potent as this one.

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