Why Rory McIlroy proved The Open is golf's most compelling championship
When I was younger, I pretended every putt I hit on the practice green was to win the U.S. Open.
It was my national championship and even today, I still believe it is the toughest test in all of golf.
But if I were 12 years-old again, I would visualize making putts to win The Open Championship. A trip to Scotland in 2015 may have contributed to this, but think of the story lines of the last 10, or so, Opens.
In 2009 it was a 59-year-old Tom Watson turning back the clock and leading the tournament on the 72nd hole before losing in a playoff (if only he hit 9 iron). Darren Clarke breaking through for his first major title at 42 two years later. Then a run of previous major winners including Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson.
Two-thousand-sixteen saw perhaps one of the greatest final round major duels with Henrik Stenson topping Mickelson for his first major title and a new major scoring record. The next year, it was Jordan Spieth going bogey-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to blow by Matt Kuchar and lift his first claret jug.
Last year's champion, Francesco Molinari, wasn't so much the story as Tiger Woods taking the lead on the back 9 of a major for the first time in a decade.
That's just recent history, excluding the 1977 "Duel in the Sun" at Turnberry or Jean Van de Velde's collapse on 18 at Carnoustie in 1999.
The Open is a different brand of golf. In this tournament, and in links golf, the greatest players in the world are challenged by rapidly changing weather, unpredictable bounces, knee deep fescue and deep pot bunkers.
It's where you see pros attempting to drive 400-yard-plus par-4s and then in the same round hit driver into 230-yard par-3s.
Those challenges may contribute to a trend of older Open champions in modern times. Only three winners have been under the age of 32 since 2007 (McIlroy, Spieth and Louis Oosthuizen).
This year, for the first time in nearly seven decades, the Open is at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, the home country of major champions Graeme McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke.
McIlroy was a popular pre-tournament favorite, having a fantastic season thus far with a win at The Players in March. He also, as was mentioned excessively in the run up to the tournament, owns the course record, having shot 61 as a 16-year-old.
This may have been the only good chance for McIlroy, who hasn't won a major in five years, to win an Open in his homeland as Royal Portrush is only scheduled to host golf's oldest major two more times before 2040.
McIlroy was carrying the entire country of Northern Ireland on his shoulders as the other two champions were past their primes.
He cracked under intense external and likely internal pressure. McIlroy hooked his opening tee shot out of bounds, carded a quadruple-bogey 8 on his way to a first round 79.
However, it was the second round when McIlroy showed much this championship means to him. Starting the day seven strokes outside the projected cut, the Ulsterman fired a 6-under-par 65, the round of the tournament.
Ultimately, he fell just a stroke short of playing the weekend.
In his post round interviews, the emotion flowed.
"As much as I came here at the start of the week saying I wanted to do it for me, you know, by the end of the round there today I was doing it just as much for them as I was for me,” McIlroy told the Washington Post. “I wanted to be here for the weekend. Selfishly I wanted to feel that support for two more days.”
He broke down when looking back on his second round with Sky Sports after realizing he would not be around for the weekend.
He pulled for years to get the Royal and Ancient Golf Association to bring the Open back to Royal Portrush, but he would have no chance at lifting the trophy there.
No other championship would generate so much emotion out of any player like this Open has for McIlroy.
He won't be around for the weekend at Portrush this year, but his contribution to the tournament has already shaped the feel for the tournament and will be remembered for years afterward.