The worst of times, the best of times at Birkdale

The year is 1973 and Jack Nicklaus is home alone. 

Showing on television is the Belmont Stakes, the third and final leg of American horse racing’s Triple Crown. Nicklaus has no real interest in the sport and barely knows which end of a horse eats, but watches anyway. Before the end of the race, which the immortal Secretariat won in a still-record time and by a phenomenal 31 lengths, the greatest golfer of all-time is on his knees in front of the box. He is beating the carpet with his fists and he is in tears.

Days later, Nicklaus relates that same tale to racing journalist Heywood Hale Broun and wonders why he would react in such a strange and emotional way to a mere horse race: “That’s easy,” says Broun. “You’ve been searching for sporting perfection your whole life and finally you saw it.”

More than once or twice in his professional career, Rory McIlroy has approached a Secretariat-like level of performance. There was, for example, that eight-shot margin of victory in the 2011 US Open and a repeat of that feat 14 months later at the USPGA Championship.

Like all true greats, McIlroy has an innate ability to make an endlessly complicated game appear simple. Club in hand, he is Torvill and Dean on the ice; he is Frank Sinatra at the microphone; and he is Lionel Messi with a ball at his feet.

He has the potential to raise a mere sport to art form, his eventual status defined not by tournaments won and lost but by — as was Nicklaus — the views of his opponents and admirers.

The Golden Bear had about him a certainty and a unique knowledge, as former Open champion Tom Weiskopf memorably commented: “Jack knows he is going to beat you and more importantly he knows that you know he is going to beat you. And he knows that you know he knows.”

“Jack told me he always put a lot of pressure on himself,” adds McIlroy. “He expected to play well. He expected to be up there all the time. “And he said he expected me to do the same thing. So he said I need to put pressure on myself. There’s going to be pressure from everyone else, so I have to make sure that I really want it. I’ve got to go out there and expect to play well and put pressure on myself to play well. That’s what he did.”

All of the above is an almost perfect summation of everything McIlroy went through over the first two days of the 146th Open Championship. For the first six holes, his play was at times a perplexing mixture of hapless and hopeless, bogey after bogey littering his card. For the next 30 holes he was for long periods all but flawless, reacting to his caddie’s already immortal comment: “You’re Rory McIlroy. For fuck’s sake, what are you doing?”

Stop me if this sounds familiar. Leading a major championship through 54 holes, the likeable young man with the mop-top haircut, the normally ready grin and perfect golfing manners shoots a disastrous score and finishes down the prize-list.

In all of his post-round interviews, despite his enormous disappointment, he behaves and talks with great dignity and maturity, a credit to his low-handicap father, a stickler for golf’s rules and etiquette.

No, we’re not talking about Rory circa Augusta National 2011, although the above scenario could well be applied to the precocious youngster in the immediate aftermath of that all-but unwatchable closing 80 in the Masters.

Instead, just to show that history does nothing if not repeat itself, the subject is one Tom Watson. In 1974 at Winged Foot, the now eight-time major champion led the US Open after 54 holes before exploding to a closing 79 and T-5. (One year later at Oakmont, Watson led again, this time at the halfway mark, before subsiding to T-9 with rounds of 78 and 77.)

Back then the main criticisms of the emerging Watson’s game were that his swing was a little long and loose and would therefore never be consistent, and his erratic putting was way too aggressive for his own good. Again, sound familiar?

Anyway, the point here is never panic. Yes, two days ago Rory appeared to be in the midst of a slump. But he remains a truly great player, one with that special and indefinable something that separates the very best from the rest.

The old baseball star Ted Williams cared only that, when he walked by, people would say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter in the game.’

By dint of the easy flow, rhythm, and sheer beauty of his swing, McIlroy displays a similar air of inherent superiority in a way that is beyond the likes of Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, and Luke Donald. Those men have all been ranked number one in the world, but it is hard to imagine fellow pedestrians gasping in awe as they walk by. McIlroy has that quality, while still retaining an endearing ordinariness.

He was always meant to be a golfer. When his father Gerry first took his son to the Holywood club on the outskirts of Belfast, his innate ability was immediately obvious. As was his dedication.

When the Holywood professional Michael Bannon — still McIlroy’s coach — decided that, at age 11, his young charge should weaken what was a dangerously strong left-hand grip, the diminutive Rory went at it with a vengeance.

His mother Rosie tells of looking into Rory’s bedroom. There he was, fast asleep, his arms outside the bedcovers and his hands resolutely placed on the grip in a perfectly neutral position.

So forget the recent missed cuts; forget the way he butchered the front nine at Royal Birkdale on Thursday. And remember what we are watching is something very special. Enjoy the ride — the downs as well as the ups.

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