CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – It was 11 years ago at Carnoustie that Rory McIlroy made his major championship debut at the British Open, a doughy, shaggy-haired 18-year-old with more power than panache. The memory snapshot of that kid seems lodged somewhere between cute and quaint to the trim, close-cropped 29-year-old who is chasing a fifth major win this week.
“It’s great to look back on. It’s good memories,” McIlroy said. “When I looked in the mirror back then, I didn’t think (his hair) was as big as it was. Anyways, we live and we learn.” He smiled ruefully.
McIlroy has no interest in recreating that infamous teenage ‘fro. “A few more grays in it these days,” he joked. But he would like to recapture the attitude he had then, a carefree freedom common in phenoms but often lost on the winding road to adulthood and success.
He was reminded of that Monday at Carnoustie when he played a practice round with Jon Rahm, who at just 23 already seems a newer generation than McIlroy.
“The first instinct he has is get up on a tee box and pull a driver out of the bag. Not think about the trouble or think about anything. Just, this is where I want to hit it, and this is where I want to go,” McIlroy said.
“I just think as you get a little older, you get a little more cautious in life. I think it’s only natural. I think it’s more of that. It’s more of playing with the freedom and, you know, almost like …” He paused thoughtfully.
“I don’t want to say naive, but there is something nice about being young and being oblivious to some stuff. I remember back to when we last played the Open here. I was just happy to be here. I was bouncing down the fairways, didn’t care if I shot 82 or 62. I was just happy to be here. The more I can get into that mindset, the better I’ll play golf.”
On the eve of Thursday’s first round, McIlroy played an early practice round with his fellow Irishman Shane Lowry. The two have an easy rapport, but this was no hit-and-giggle affair.
Accompanying McIlroy on the walk was Carnoustie resident Eric Ramsay, once an accomplished amateur who went on to play mini-tour golf in Europe. Ramsay also caddies in the Dunhill Links event at Carnoustie for Irish billionaires J.P. McManus and Dermot Desmond. On select holes, McIlroy would pick Ramsay’s brains on lines off the tee and into the greens.
McIlroy has competed often in the Dunhill tournament, but he knows a dry, fiery Carnoustie in July bears no resemblance to the softer links he sees at that fall stop.
“Not even close to being the same course,” Ramsay confirmed.
As he strolled the back nine, McIlroy said that the intimidating layout has little in common even with what he saw 11 years ago when he finished T-42 and won the silver medal as low amateur.
“It’s nothing like it was in ’07,” he said. “It was so much more lush then.”
By comparison, the wispy rough evident this year is enticing McIlroy to blast his driver in an effort to clear many of the fairway bunkers. He maintained an aggressive strategy in a friendly match against an in-form Lowry.
“I don’t know what I have to do to win a hole against you,” McIlroy said with a laugh on the 15th green.
By No. 17, another onlooker had joined the group: former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley. From the front bunker, Lowry lofted a shot that nestled within inches of the hole, to generous applause from the small gallery.
“Are you having a game?” McGinley asked.
“No, Paul,” Lowry said with a hearty laugh. “That’s game over.”
When he spoke to the media later, McIlroy was philosophical about his four-year drought in the majors, dating to the 2014 PGA Championship.
“I’ve had a decent career up until this point, and I’ve got a lot of time left to add to my major tally,” he said. “It’s hard to win any week on Tour, let alone the four big ones that we get a year.”
“Look, I was on a nice run there from 2011 to 2014. I haven’t won one since, but I’m trying. I’m trying my best every time I tee it up, and it just hasn’t happened.”
If it happens this week, McIlroy is conscious that he’d head home to Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush for the 148th Open as defending champion.
“If I were to head to Portrush with a Claret Jug in my possession, I’d obviously be very happy and be very proud to be the defending champion at a golf course that I know very well and playing in front of home fans,” he said. “Geez, if it all worked out like that this week, I’d be one very happy man heading out of here.”
When he broke the course record at Royal Portrush with a 61, McIlroy was just 16 years old, the same frizzy-haired, nascent talent who announced himself to the world two summers later. More than a decade later, he seems contemplative on his return to Carnoustie, aware of the passage of time, the weight of expectation, and the struggle to play the freewheeling golf he brought here long ago.
“I think sometimes with, you know, the pressure that’s maybe put on the top guys to perform at such a high level every week, that starts to weigh on you a little bit,” he said. “But, yeah, like I look back at those pictures, and the more I can be like that kid, the better.”