Monday, June 20, 2011
Just last April, Rory McIlroy teed off for his Sunday (fourth) round of the Masters and like today, the whole world was talking about him. His textbook swing. His Irish charm. That four-leaf clover in his wallet. He led the field by four strokes and all eyes were on him as he put his drive on the fairway more than three hundred yards out.
No birdies on that front nine; and just one bogie. Not bad. More than acceptable. And at the turn, he still led the field, but only by one stroke. He still had a reasonable shot at a Masters win.
But on the tenth hole, golf did to the twenty-two year old professional what golf does to most everyone who plays the game. One hole it all it takes. One tragic, unexpected, unwelcome meltdown. A triple bogey. Deflated, young Rory never recovered. McIlroy opened the Masters with a stunning 65 first round following up with a 68 and then a third round 70. His poise and consistency, power and precision, picture perfect swing and boyish magnetism earned him high praise and talk of “the next Tiger Woods.” But he finished the round with an eight over par 80, dropping from a comfortable lead and predictions of greatness to a shocking fifteenth place. It not only cost him the coveted Green Jacket, it cost him well over a million dollars in prize money (from $1.4 million to the winner to a paltry $128 thousand for 15th place).
The crowd’s attitude that day went from exhilaration to pity those last nine holes. As Rory holed out at eighteen that Sunday afternoon, he forced a smile, acknowledging the crowd, but the pain inflicted by a little white ball that refused to find the cup was evident. Relative unknown Charl Schwartzel took the Green Jacket and the prize money and the accolades.
That same awful afternoon, Rory’s cell phone rang. On the other end was the legendary Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear just felt compelled to encourage the young player. In an interview later, Nicklaus told reporters that he didn’t call to give advice. (In golf, as in the rest of life, advice can be hollow, especially when the dark clouds of disappointment and despair close in.) They shared a laugh. Nicklaus, in his own words, let Rory know that he had something special. A gift. Only Rory and Jack know the exact substance of that call.
But just a couple months later, the young star born in Holywood, Northern Ireland on May 4, 1989, teed up for the US Open at the famed Congressional Country Club just outside Washington DC this weekend. His father, Gerry, flew over from Ireland to watch his son compete. Rory opened with an impossible 65. Then followed it up Friday with a 66; then Saturday with a 68. A jaw-dropping three days at the US Open. Once again, the world spoke of Rory. Northern Ireland tuned in, praying fervently that the tragedy of Round Four of the Masters would not be repeated.
Once again, Rory McIroy teed up in the final grouping (reserved for the leader) in the final round of the US Open. This time, it was Father’s Day. This time, he had Jack Nicklaus’ voice echoing in his mind. This time, with an eight stroke lead. Not one of the world-class competitors in the field, the best of the best, was even close. He slammed his first drive onto the fairway and birdied that first hole, just to make a point.
Those of us who watch the majors on a Sunday afternoon are drawn in to the drama by the enormous pressure that closes in on a golfer during this final round. We all sit on the edge, wondering: can he handle it? Will he fold? The line between and the joy of accomplishment and self-loathing, between the glory of victory and the agony of defeat, is so thin; which will it be? Every stroke offers this level of drama. The stakes are high. And it’s only a game. We were there, my brother and I, pampered on Father’s Day, watching together on his big screen in Wheaton.
The wheels fell off on the back nine of the Masters for Rory McIlroy; but not this time. The rest of the field just gave up. It was a crushing victory. The Irishman broke at least twelve records.
On the final hole, just to give the massive crowd cause to stand and cheer in disbelief and wonder, Rory put a long put from the other end of the 18th green within inches of the cup. Then when he tapped in for par (beating the four round composite score record by four strokes). He reached over to snatch the ball from the cup as the crowd went wild. He looked up, searching the cheering throng for one face – and then he found him – his white haired father, proud as can be. Rory broke into a broad smile.
Us dads know about this. All it took was eye contact. Father-son. All the memories. All the travel. All those rounds. And here, in the arena, a moment of release. Triumph. All the stuff. Forgotten. Worth it. This is much more than a million dollar purse (although, let’s face it: a nice reward). Much more.
And then, on the edge of the green, they embrace. A large, long man hug. Laughter. Tears. Pride. Joy. Gratitude.
So, with the officials spiffed in their standard issue jackets looking on, along with the rest of the world, the camera zoomed in for the close-up and Bob Costas asked the Champion what it was like to have his father there. “It means the world to me,” Rory said. And then he raised the trophy above his head, “Happy Father’s Day, Dad!” He scanned the crowd. “Wherever you are!”
The crowd laughed.
And brushed away a tear.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011