SANDWICH, England – A really bad week for Rory McIlroy proved to be a really good week for learning a lot more about golf's hottest new star. The British Open opened a more illuminating window into his mind and game than victory in the U.S. Open did.
Lesson No. 1: McIlroy and bad weather are not, and may never be, good friends.
The spanking that the Old Course at St. Andrews handed him at the 2010 Open — he shot 80 in howling winds — wasn't rookie teething pains, a fluke or just a bad day at the office. That became clear at Royal St. George's, with poor rounds of 74 and 73 over the weekend when gales and rain again made his golf miserable.
The Open may be golf's oldest major, steeped in history and tradition, but it hasn't yet wormed its way into the 22-year-old's heart. Last month, McIlroy blew away records and opponents in more pleasant climes at the U.S. Open. In soggy Sandwich, he finished in the anonymous no man's land of 7-over par for the week, not what the bettors who made him the pre-tournament favorite were counting on.
At the end, the Ulsterman sounded not like a kid who learned golf on the wind-swept shores of Belfast Lough but more like a player pining for less capricious courses in the United States where, so far, he has made his biggest impact. No sooner than he was done Sunday with his 3-over-par round, McIlroy was already talking about Akron, the PGA Championship and "getting back into some nice conditions."
"I'm not a fan of golf tournaments that are, you know, the outcome's predicted so much by the weather" was his frank verdict on the venerable Open. "It's not my sort of golf."
That sounds like a young man talking. Tom Watson talked at this Open about how he, too, used to hate links golf, the unpredictable severe conditions that "can tear you up and spit you out." The rest, as they say, is history.
Watson went on to win five Opens and still, at age 61, sagely smiled his way through the rain that dripped off the beak of his cap.
In winning his first major at this Open at 42, Darren Clarke also showed how the patience and steadiness that can come with age can be a genuine ally when frustrating winds are sending balls in unexpected directions.
For the moment, McIlroy says he is not about to tailor his game to the Open's oft-changing conditions and will bide his time until the conditions are tailored for him. Given the oxymoron that is the British summer, that could be a long time coming.
"Just wait for a year when the weather's nice," he said. "My game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but these conditions I just don't enjoy playing in really. That's the bottom line. I'd rather play when it's 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind."
"There's no point in changing your game for one week a year," he added.
Give him time, that could change. If the Open becomes the only major McIlroy needs to complete a full collection, you can bet that he will do what it takes to win — just as Clarke did. After 13 years living in London, he moved his family back to Northern Ireland last summer, allowing him to regularly practice and play links golf at Royal Portrush. That looked like such a smart move as he hoisted the claret jug.
There was no better example of how the weather gods toyed with McIlroy than on the par-5 No. 7 on Sunday. Just as he was about to strike an 8-foot putt, his ball rolled several inches right. Although the real culprit appeared to have been a gust of wind, the rules official handed McIlroy a penalty shot, judging that the player was addressing the ball when it moved. McIlroy's golf was lackadaisical from that point on.
"I got a bit down," he said later. "You're looking at an 8-foot birdie putt and then all of a sudden, it's for a par and then you're a bit scrambled and you miss it and end up making bogey."
Lesson No. 2 from McIlroy's collision with Royal St. George's is that winning his first major last month didn't make him the new Tiger Woods. Destroying the field as he did was hugely impressive but also sent expectations too high, too quick.
Jack Nicklaus is absolutely correct: It is way too early to anoint McIlroy as golf's new crown prince. Only when he wins two, three, four or more majors can golf have a serious debate about his place in the sport's pantheon. Until then, McIlroy is still a member of an elite group of several dozen players who all have the talent to win majors, but is not yet floating above them on a level all of his own.
As McIlroy himself now says: "To start talking about winning 18 majors and doing this and doing that, yeah, that was very premature."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester