By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
He had likely pondered this moment since his earliest flirtations with golf. War, politics and tradition being what they are, or were, it was extremely unlikely to happen – ever. The now decades-long absence had no room for fairytales, despite the young dreamer growing into one of the game’s very best.
But it did happen – the tournament of all tournaments returned to his country and to a course that built his legend. Now this improbable circumstance just needed a storybook ending – the national hero hoisting the iconic trophy in victory for man and country.
With that intense backdrop, he strode to the first tee with an unimaginable cocktail of emotions boiling within. The dream quickly became a nightmare. His tee shot hooked left and out of bounds. One in, two out, back to the tee hitting three. His third shot was left again but stayed in play. His fourth remained left and mired in deep, classic Open Championship foliage. He took an unplayable lie for his fifth shot. His sixth hack finally landed on the green. A manageable putt went begging and he tapped in for a quadruple bogey eight.
That was how Rory McIlroy’s Open Championship, which was back in his native Northern Ireland for the first time in 60 years, began. Simply brutal. Painful. Unfair. McIlroy went on to card a 7-over 78 in the first round. To his credit he scrambled back with a 65 on Saturday but it wasn’t enough. He didn’t make the cut. A golfing dream was over after just two rounds. For all intents and purposes, it ended on the first hole.
In the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance”, the legendary and mythical caddie said, “I always felt like a man’s grip on his clubs just like a man’s grip on his world.” When The Open Championship returned to McIlroy’s homeland, he was understandably gripping everything – his club, his mind, the faith of a nation - too tight.
But as hideous as McIlroy’s start was and how unsatisfying his finish was for Northern Ireland, it offered important commentary on sports and basic human struggles. The allure of sports is complex and comprised of both obvious and discreet elements. The opportunity to observe real-time, organic excellence, to share special moments with special people with similar allegiances or even to appreciate the inspirational powers of athletic competition – comeback stories, exhilarating finishes or - with sports fans of any persuasion are among the more overt qualities that put butts in stadium seats or plant them firmly in recliners in front of televisions.
McIlroy’s abysmal Open Championship performance speaks to another, more subtle attraction sports fans don’t always talk about - failure. I know where you’re going. It isn’t like that. Well, not always. Does a Washington sports fan enjoy meltdowns by the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Penguins? Indeed they do. No argument. But this fascination with failure isn’t completely diabolical.
Failure by elite athletes and uber-talented teams is a window into our own human experience. When the best crash and burn, especially in the biggest moments, we see a reflection of our own considerable imperfections. Inevitably and in some role, our lives have resembled McIlroy’s shot chart on that doomed first hole. We’ve duck hooked a relationship out of bounds, hit a big presentation into an unplayable lie, botched a parental moment like a makeable putt, humbly tapped in and, with dented pride, a broken heart or considerable shame, moved on determined to do better.
As McIlroy scrambled to that quadruple bogey in the biggest moment of his career, we walked by his side. We searched for answers with him and felt his embarrassment, his confusion and his anger. We found solace in his failure and, in his aguish, a kinship. The best – whatever the sport - have ugly moments where there’s nothing to do but move on. McIlroy did – first to the next hole, then to the next round and, sometime soon, to the next tournament where better moments await and future failures are all but assured.
“Golf. Life. Effort. Failure. Perseverance. Grip gently.”
Print the bumper stickers. Distribute widely. Sorry and thanks, Rory.
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