Rory McIlroy shot an even-par 70 in his first round at Royal St George's

Credit: AFP

Rory McIlroy’s seven-year itch at majors is reaching the pathological stage. So desperate is he to end the wait, and so fretful is he that golf’s infinite cruelties are conspiring against his cause, he became distracted on the sixth tee here as a rogue butterfly fluttered about his face. 

Sure enough, he fanned his iron to the par-three into a greenside bunker, then whipped around accusingly to blame the offending insect. Where once he was a model of devil-may-care jauntiness, he has, at these moments, grown consumed by jitters.

In fairness, McIlroy can be forgiven for a creeping terror about what awaits him on major Thursdays. Since the 2014 USPGA, the last of his four triumphs, he has sabotaged his chances painfully early, managing just five opening rounds in the 60s in 24 attempts. 

From there, whether out of inspiration or frustration, he has tended to salvage respectable scorecards, but far too late to have any hope of the prizes he covets most. Spelt out in bald statistics, his false starts are astonishing: while he is a cumulative 34 over par for his first rounds in the past seven seasons, he has played the rest of those tournaments in 60 under.

Granted, there was no grievous damage as he signed for a 70 beneath darkening Sandwich skies, just six off Louis Oosthuizen’s lead. This was nothing akin to the trauma of his 79 at Royal Portrush in 2019, which consigned him to a missed cut at an Open for which he had spent a decade mentally preparing. But equally, it was hardly the swashbuckling statement of defiance that had been promised. 

McIlroy set off with a swagger, splitting his first two fairways, a feat he had last managed in 2014, the year of his Hoylake glory. But when he let slide a six-footer for his second straight birdie, the old gnawing anxieties resurfaced.

If his short putting looked suspect, so too did his approach play, as he scuttled through the back of the 17th green and into a seemingly impossible lie on the edge of a pot bunker, which required balletic poise for him not to topple backwards into the sand. 

McIlroy shows his frustration after a missed putt on the 14th green

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

What can never be disputed is McIlroy’s capacity for scrambling. For all the murmurs that he does not care any longer, that he is content simply to kick back with his wife, baby daughter and groaning bank balance at home in Florida, he discovered plenty of pride to rally with a birdie at the last, even as the Kentish wind swirled and the flags on the grandstand billowed.

There was a surging sense of expectation around McIlroy at Royal St George’s, with crowds drawn to his group like butterflies to a seven-iron. It was a compelling three-ball, with McIlroy drawn, in faintly mischievous scheduling, with Patrick Reed and Australia’s Cameron Smith, a pair known for their thinly-disguised mutual loathing. 

After Reed’s infamous sand-altering antics in the Bahamas two years ago, apparently giving himself a better lie, Smith had said: “I don’t have any sympathy for anyone who cheats.” At that year’s Presidents Cup in Melbourne, the two were seen deliberately clashing shoulders during their match. This time, they resolved their discord by refusing to talk to each other.

McIlroy had more than enough to worry about on his own. The memory of how he had sprayed his first drive out of bounds in Portrush, en route to a quadruple-bogey eight, still scarred. But he arrowed the same shot here straight and true, before holding firm as the gusts gathered across Sandwich Bay. With impressive resilience, he repaired the harm of three straight bogeys from the fifth to play the last 11 holes in two under.

“After that little wobble on the front nine, I set myself a little target of getting back to even par – I was able to achieve that and it feels good,” he said. “One of the things I have been struggling with is the driver. So, to hit a tee shot 350 yards down the first like that and then stuff a wedge close was the perfect start.”

It is a stubborn Open excuse for players buffeted by late-afternoon winds to dwell on the idea that they have been placed on the wrong side of the draw. But McIlroy did not resort to it, conscious that Tommy Fleetwood had shot 67 and France’s Benjamin Hebert 66 in the same conditions. 

He is more than wily enough to know how to tame the vagaries of the links when the elements turn. In a supreme show of adaptability, he found himself in knee-high rough at the 12th but sliced through the undergrowth as if wielding a machete, even achieving some backspin as the ball checked up eight feet from the pin.

McIlroy remains a conjuror of miracles when the mood takes him. Even though he seems not to fulfil the prophecies of 20-plus majors that were once made on his behalf, he can still become only the 10th player to amass five before his 33rd birthday. All those gifts so celebrated throughout his precocious youth? They continue to make him dangerous today.