Rory McIlroy stood on the sunlit first tee yesterday afternoon as a young man on top of the world, and apparently without a care in it.
He had strolled off the practice green, rolling his hips and chewing gum, with studied insouciance. "So," he seemed to be saying. "What exactly is the problem here?" By the time he returned to the clubhouse, however, he had been inwardly reduced to some haggard old Lear, bellowing back at the tempest. Flat-footed, puffing out his cheeks, the boy who had never required more than 69 shots here, who had hurtled round in 63 the previous day, could now count 80 tender new bruises on his ego.
His ambitions lay strewn across the Old Course. It had been a sadistic revenge. Never mind all this talk about "the old lady". The fact was that McIlroy had only ever tackled this crazed bitch wearing her muzzle. And she sank her fangs mercilessly deep: four over for the front nine, four over for the back. As he approached the final green, the few souls still persevering in the galleries could be heard wincing as they remarked on the trio's scoreboard. His drive had nestled under the green, in the Valley of Sin. And McIlroy, by now plainly punch-drunk, failed to reach even the ridge with his putter, the ball rolling away at least as far again. He regrouped to leave himself a yard or so to salvage par – and even then his 80th stroke rolled around the cup before finally consenting to end the agony.
He had been fully aware that this would be an afternoon to take down the sails, to get to work with the oars. For a lad of 21, he is unusually seasoned in pragmatic links play. He was just 16, after all, when he shot 61 to break the course record at Royal Portrush. Here he had vowed to "run those shots into the greens and keep the ball below the wind". As the gale keened across the Fife coast, however, that policy proved wholly impractical without a spade and a miner's lamp.
Earlier McIlroy had exchanged high-fives with his compatriot, Graeme McDowell, on his return from a morning round of 68, which took him to five under for the tournament. For McIlroy himself a nice, steady 72, just this once, would do very nicely, thank you.
And he began beautifully. Admittedly his first drive, in marked contrast to the announcement of his name, was received in critical silence; and his second shot left him an awkward descent to the hole. But he polished off his par, and gave himself birdie chances on the next two holes, as well, before hitting an immaculate drive off the fourth. And then the klaxon went, for the suspension of play, and he sprawled upon his back in comic distress.
Already, perhaps, he sensed a malevolent tweak of his nerves. To have started so serenely, as the storm balked the air, had seemed to reiterate his comfort with the giddiest altitudes of his vocation. During the idle hour that followed, however, the contrast in the caprice of his environment plainly gnawed at his youthful certainty.
On the resumption, the difference in McIlroy was abruptly apparent. He chipped into a hollow on the edge of the green, whacked his first putt fully 15 feet past the hole, and duly required two more. A first blemish on his tournament, then, and his prospects of redeeming it on the next, hitherto the tamest of par fives, were lost as the wind flung his drive left, and his approach into dense rough on the fringe. He hacked out and left a difficult birdie putt 18 inches short. Suddenly McIlroy looked full of doubt, pulling away even as he was about to tap in, sensing a mischievous tremor in the ball.
On the sixth, his drive instead veered right, leaving him stabbing out of shaggy rough; left a chip to the flag, he gave it too much grip, and two putts snagged him back to seven under. The next was pure purgatory: rough, bunker, a brave second putt curling round the lip. Six under. All of a sudden he only had a shot in hand on McDowell – and was fully six behind Louis Oosthuizen. It was slipping away so quickly. On the par-three eighth, his tee-shot swayed behind a gorse bush. Five under. Scraping together a birdie chance on nine, he missed from 12 feet.
As it happened, that seamless swing would operate pretty felicitously on the back nine. But it is harnessed to a rather more porous short game, and when he snatched at an awkward bogey putt on 11, you sensed that he had waved the white flag. It was proving a tough afternoon for everyone, of course, but for McIlroy it was proving something closer to a loss of innocence. On 13, there would be a brave putt to rescue par, but it stopped cruelly on the lip. Ludicrous as it seemed, he must now have begun wondering if he might even miss the cut.
On 15, he slipped to one under. He could not afford any more mistakes. But the gale was at last relenting, and anyhow he would soon have the sanctuary of the buildings guarding the final holes, solemn and becalmed as a cathedral close. And he wandered back through the shadows of the smiling, villainous evening, wondering what had happened to his Eden.
Guide to day three of The Open
Mostly cloudy, with some Sunny breaks and showers in the afternoon. Average wind speed will range between 14mph and 17mph, with gusts of up to 35mph possible. Very good visibility.
Mostly cloudy, with rain highly likely thoughout the day. Average wind speeds of 14mph and gusts of 29mph probable. Very good visibility.
Mostly cloudy, with some Sun and showers intermitently. Average wind speed 10mph and low chances of any significants increases. Good visibility.
BBC One: 1000-1200 BST
BBC One: 1210-1715 BST
BBC Two: 1715-1930 BST