White trousers and a white shirt with a pink stripe down the back. White shoes, pink belt, and a pink hat that could barely sit atop the bouncing, possibly highlighted curls beneath it. If any kid rocked up at a prestigious amateur (or professional) event like that now they’d be side-eyed off the course. The cliques of established, well-rounded elite amateurs would be scoffing their disapproval to each other with raised eyebrows and sneering smiles that say it all.
“Who does he think he is?”
It takes a carefree recklessness to act like the man before people recognise you as actually being the man. But I think Rory knew. And that carefree recklessness – alongside supreme ability and a probably underrated work ethic – would have been one of the main contributors into propelling that boy into “the man”, and Portrush folklore at the same time. But 14 years on from that record breaking 61, the carefree recklessness is the thing I think Rory has lost some of. It doesn’t have to be arrogance, or cockiness; even if those with less ability and self-belief call it that. I don’t think Rory has ever not had self-belief, and the number of tournaments he’s won since that day are hardly going to knock that. It’s, as he described himself in the latest Nike ad, an “obliviousness”. And it’s the thing that he so desperately needs.
That ad shows video footage of his 16 year old obliviousness being unknowingly channeled into greatness. It shows his signature bounce down the fairways that reflected the concrete optimism of his belief that he could do anything. Alongside those grainy shots are clips of him now. The same powerful rotation through the ball, the same effortlessly balanced poise in his finish, the same eyeing up and down of the ball as it rockets towards its target. But this Rory is leaner, stronger, wiser. And yet, this Rory stares out over the Antrim coast, wondering how to be that 16 year old again.
He’s undoubtedly a better golfer now. This Rory has four majors in his locker with eight margin victories in two of them, and countless scoring records in the intervening years. This Rory has proven time and time again that he is the man, as the 16 year old was that day at Portrush. But it comes with a burden now.
The margins in golf are so incredibly fine, particularly at the highest end of the game. That’s why picking a winner on any given week is so difficult. So to consistently put yourself in contention in major championships, to constantly be one of the best players in the world, you have to understand those margins. You have to understand yourself. (Or you have to have people around you that do). We all know, as Rory does, that he has the ability and the skill to be one of the best players to have ever played the game. But that isn’t enough. To capitalise on that, he’s had to learn more. And I think it’s in his nature to want to do that; to travel down the irresistibly relentless path of golfing excellence. He, as others, has had to understand every corner of his game and his tendencies. So that they don’t breakdown when the pressure is at its peak. When he’s in the pack on a Sunday of a major and he knows he’s got the game to win but he’s not operating at his destructive best, and there are half a dozen others with game and mental strength on the day to win too. There are a million and one factors that can stop a golfer from winning a tournament that they are good enough to win. I think people sometimes forget that. Figuring out as many of those things as you can is a pretty good strategy to learning to control them. Figuring them out can give you the edge when it matters the most – but they are the same things that can stop you from having the edge. Knowledge is only power when you know how to use it. Knowledge sometimes, can stop you from being oblivious.
Maturity, intelligence, depth… call it what you want: it is an asset and a burden. It can carry you. But you also have to carry it. When he was 16, Rory didn’t have to.