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There are two ways to handle a crushing humiliation on the golf course. We saw both after Thursday’s first round of the Open Championship.

David Duval had one very bad hole, in the same sense that someone trapped in a well for a week has a bad hole.

After losing a couple of balls and then playing the wrong one(!), Duval put up 14 strokes on the par-five seventh. It was a nonuple-bogey, which happens so rarely I had to look the word up.

He scored 91 on the day. Ninety-one!

Duval’s a past Open champion. He’s been No. 1 in the world. The guy I’m sitting beside in the news centre, the Toronto Sun’s Jon McCarthy, played Royal Portrush a few months ago and scored an 85. And nobody interviewed him afterward.

Duval has never been cuddly. He came in after his round much less cuddly than usual.

“[The score] is not reflective of anything I’m doing,” he said. “It’s just one of those godawful nightmare scenarios.”

It was hard to tell if he meant pooching the round so badly or being forced to talk about it. The anger and humiliation was plain.

But after a bit of low-grade raging, Duval began smirking (when someone asked if they had at least offered him a cart ride back to the tee to redo things) and then laughing (when someone asked him to explain how all the penalties he’d incurred added up, and he couldn’t).

By the end of his five minutes, Duval had found the point where tragedy becomes comedy. He was on his way to getting over it. Or as over it as a player working at this level can be.

Rory McIlroy couldn’t get there. After the day he had, he may not ever.

Two strands in McIlroy’s life intersected on Thursday morning. First, there was the Open itself. Since it was being played in his home country, he has become the semi-willing mascot of the event.

McIlroy hasn’t won a major in five years. He’s been close, but not that close. Nevertheless, he was installed as the firm favourite here based entirely on a little history and a lot of romanticism. This was supposed to be his moment.

The second strand is the change McIlroy has made in his mental approach. After years of streakiness, he’s talked about easing up, finding his bliss and not taking his work home with him. He got hooked up with a sports psychologist, started meditating and made the mistake of gushing about it. Now people talk about McIlroy as though he’s the Dalai Lama.

These two ideas – McIlroy as homecoming hero and man on the verge of a breakthrough – collided at the first tee. The resultant implosion was not quite Nevada Test Site level, but by midafternoon, everyone in the world had heard about it.

For many years, Royal Portrush did not own some of the land in the middle of its own golf course. Though those parcels have since been purchased, they are still considered out of bounds. That’s where McIlroy landed with his first shot. Then he put it in the rough. Then the much worse rough. Then he yanked a short putt.

This will have been the most anticipated tee-off of McIlroy’s life and he could not have got it much worse: a quadruple-bogey eight.

He gathered himself through the bulk of his day. The rains came and went, as did the sun. Around these parts, you can get wet, be dried and soaked once more in the time it takes to walk to your car. It’s like living in a very lush dishwasher.

McIlroy’s concentration deserted him on the 16th – after missing another short putt, he leaned in off-balance to tap in and lipped it. Double bogey.

He got it entirely wrong on the 18th. Triple bogey. He finished at an eight-over 79, one worse than Tiger Woods, who was less spectacularly bad. The current leader, American journeyman J.B. Holmes, is on five under.

For two years, we’ve been hearing about McIlroy’s magical bond with Royal Portrush. After just four hours of finally getting to see their act in real life, the course disappeared him from the Open.

Unlike Duval, McIlroy did not seem angry or humiliated. He came in cracking jokes.

Is there a way back from that score?

“There’s definitely a way back to Florida,” McIlroy said.


Then he realized the guy was serious.

Without saying the words, McIlroy said no. There is no “way back” from that round on a links course in a major. All he can do in the next three days is un-humiliate himself.

That isn’t possible. McIlroy understands that. Which is why none of the jokes or laughs seemed funny. You could see McIlroy’s confusion. He stuttered through answers or took huge pauses before answering.

You were aware that every ounce of his meditative art was being channelled into maintaining the facial expression of someone who had not walked headfirst into a phone pole on global television.

About halfway through, it began to dawn on him this wasn’t working out. Breeziness was not the best look here. He began tracking back to seriousness. Expectations? What expectations?

“Look, I was nervous on the first tee,” he said. “But not nervous because of that.”

Nervous because of what then?

By the time McIlroy left, he looked despondent. Comedy was becoming tragedy.

A few days ago, McIlroy was asked if he would trade seasons with Brooks Koepka. McIlroy’s had a bunch of wins, runner-up spots and top-10 finishes this year. He may be the most consistently good golfer around.

Koepka’s standout statistic is that he won another major. He is the most erratically great. “I wouldn’t trade, no,” McIlroy said. “I need to relax to play my best golf.”


Trying to pass off this “Majors, what majors?” nonsense puts in doubt the truth of anything McIlroy says into a microphone. That’s what deep frustration does to elite athletes – it turns them into smiling prevaricators. It makes them flinch from facing things head-on, because head-on might end up in flames.

Duval doesn’t have to worry about it because no one expects anything from him. McIlroy is still cresting his expectation, and in danger of ending his career a mild disappointment. That kind of thing will get a man thinking. Which is how you end up with Thursday’s car-crash of a round.

You were thinking about that yourself as McIlroy was up there shoulder-shrugging through what has to be just about the most disappointing day of his career.

Another contender would be his disintegration at the 2011 Masters. At least that happened on a Sunday. He got to leave once it was over.

This time around, he has to show back up to work the next day in front of all of his friends and pretend everything’s fine.

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