Like the bloat fish says at the end of Finding Nemo: "Now what?" Rory McIlroy rolled into Royal St George's riding the wave of hype and expectation that he surfed so effortlessly to win the US Open in Maryland last month. He got blown out to sea in Kent. McIlroy was unlucky with the draw and got as battered as the fish on sale in town. Hours before the end, he knew he'd had his chips, too. He trudged off the links looking like he was suffering a nasty case of indigestion from a soggy Sandwich. He shot a final-round 73 to finish bedraggled, befuddled and delighted to be in out of the rain at seven over par.
"I'm not a fan of tournaments where the outcome is predicted so much by the weather," McIlroy said. So he's no fan of the Open, then. "I'm looking forward to getting back to playing in nice conditions in America. I'd rather play when it's 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind."
McIlroy has always admitted he doesn't shine in the wind and rain – an unusual Achilles heel for a lad who was weaned on the links of Northern Ireland. You need luck with the weather to win an Open, but if McIlroy is to contend next year at Royal Lytham & St Annes in Lancashire, and in future championships, he is going to have to learn to eke out a score in a hooley. Perhaps he should book a lesson or three from his mentor, 42-year-old Darren Clarke. You know, the Open champion. "He's always been on the other end of a phone," McIlroy said. "It'll be an emotional victory. I'll certainly be one of the last ones to go to bed." When he wakes up, perhaps he should study the replays of Tom Watson's 72 in the teeth of Saturday's storm. And perhaps it's time to book another lunch date with his major guru, Jack Nicklaus. McIlroy said he has no plans to tinker with anything. "No point changing my swing for one week a year," he said. "I'll just have to wait for a year when the weather is better. Going to spend a few days getting my swing back into a nice groove. The wind messes it up." Doesn't look as if he'll be drinking out of a Claret Jug anytime soon, then. If you don't count Clarke's.
While McIlroy played almost flawless golf to win the US Open, nothing much went right for him at the Open. Any chance of a Sunday charge flew out on a zephyr to France after a double bogey at the par-three third. He then incurred a one-shot penalty at the 7th when the wind moved his ball on the green after McIlroy had grounded his club. "Got a bit down after that," he said. "Looking at a birdie putt, then all of a sudden you make bogey." Time to fold, reshuffle and see what cards he is dealt at the US PGA Championship in three weeks. Before that he has another homecoming parade at the Irish Open and then it's off to Akron, Ohio, for the World Golf Championship event ahead of the final major of the year in Atlanta.
He can be assured the Georgia crowd will welcome him as one of their own. America it seems has adopted him. He has been hailed as the new Tiger Woods. But he's not – he's the new Arnold Palmer. While Woods has amazed us with his brilliance since lapping the field at the 1997 Masters, it has always been on his terms. Golf fans have always been on the outside looking in – and Woods has always hated being the goldfish. Palmer has spent a lifetime sharing the ride and now 22-year-old McIlroy has taken the armband and is swimming with the tide. American golf fans have fallen in love with his boyish charm, infectious freckly grin and Mark Bolan hair. He was carried along on a wave of American support in Maryland that was unprecedented for a foreigner. Neither Sir Nick Faldo nor Seve Ballesteros were ever treated with such affection.
The same can be expected in Atlanta. McIlroy knows only too well how such support will help him win majors. Especially when three of the four majors are played in the States – where it's always nice and sunny, right?
The love affair with McIlroy continued at Sandwich as he was greeted on to the first tee each day with a baritone Ryder Cup-style roar. He also got soprano squeals as he navigated his way through the dunes. McIlroy's appeal knows no international or generational barriers.
As Humphrey Bogart says at the end of Casablanca: "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." As long as it doesn't rain.