IT was almost reminiscent of a famous story from another great Northern Irish sporting superstar, George Best.
That old favourite in which Georgie boy, past his peak, is on a hotel bed with Miss World, covered in hundreds of banknotes he’s just won at the races.
A waiter, delivering champagne, asks him: “Where did it all go wrong?”
That’s how it felt with Rory McIlroy yesterday as, ten years on from his first Open appearance at Carnoustie, he dealt with suggestions he might have under-achieved.
The 28-year-old said: “If you were to ask me in Carnoustie, ‘In ten years’ time, what would you like to have achieved?’
“And if someone told me, ‘You’re going to be a four-time Major winner, you won The Open and you’re one leg away from the career Grand Slam, you’ve played on three winning Ryder Cup teams, you’ve won the Order of Merit three times in Europe, you’ve won the FedEx Cup in the States’, I’d be, like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that! That’s pretty good’.”
McIlroy was this sport’s answer to Best when he blazed his trail a decade ago — the young golf punk with the bounding Zebedee gait, the ready smile and the feverish imagination for shot-making.
A decade on, there have been suggestions McIlroy might be getting ‘bored’ with the game.
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Especially one from former Major winner Steve Elkington which provoked a petulant Twitter response from the man himself, correcting the Aussie’s assertion he’d made £100million, with, ‘More £200mill . . . not bad for a 28-year-old . . . plenty more where that came from’.
McIlroy, who earns £33m a year from commercial endorsements, switched club manufacturers in May after agreeing a whopping £80m ten-year deal with TaylorMade.
Yet the idea he has become a corporate money-making machine first and a golfer second was not evident as he rolled up at Royal Birkdale on the eve of this great, annual seaside special.
Still, he has struggled for form and fitness, missing three of his last four cuts and tumbled from second to fourth in the world rankings this year.
And asked whether, after winning back-to-back Majors at The Open and USPGA in 2014, he felt he could dominate as Tiger Woods once had, McIlroy was honest enough to admit he had.
He said: “I think when you ride on the crest of a wave, it’s easy to get caught up with those expectations and you start believing them.
“And I have been able to play golf in stretches that if I continued that type of golf for six, seven, eight years, yes, I would be able to win a lot more.
“But golf is so fluid and you’re always trying to evolve.
“The thoughts I might have had when I won The Open at Hoylake mightn’t work now.
“If you had the same thoughts and feelings each week, the game would be easier.
“But golf is almost like life, there’s ups and downs, it’s never that linear direction.
“When I won those tournaments in ’14, I thought, ‘OK, I really can keep this going. I was going into The Masters the next year, thinking ‘I can win the Grand Slam, I can do this, I can do that’ but some things come along you don’t expect.
“It’s been a couple of injuries that have stopped me in my tracks.
“But I’ve still got plenty of time to rekindle those feelings and that sort of play.
“I don’t feel like I am far away, even if results don’t suggest it.”
McIlroy spoke enthusiastically about his teenage kicks at Carnoustie, when he shot an opening-round 68 and made the cut — but claims his appetite for titles has not diminished.
He admitted: “I think everything has its appeal the first time — whether it’s driving down Magnolia Lane (at Augusta) for the first time, or playing in your first Open, or seeing your name for the first time up on that big yellow board on the grandstands here.
“That, over time, wears off a bit but you still get so excited for these Major tournaments.
“Ultimately, my career is going to be defined by how I do in these tournaments.
“I want to win this week but I don’t NEED to win. A second Open Championship isn’t going to change my life.
“But I’m as ambitious now as I was starting off my career, if not more so now because I know what I’ve achieved and I know what I can achieve.
“It only makes you want to do that even more.”
Sky Sports will show the 146th Open Championship exclusively live as part of a summer of sport that includes Formula 1, England cricket and more.
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