It’s February, which means old-fashioned pressmen such as myself can drink again.
Traditionally, Fleet Street was dry in January, to make up for the excesses of the festive season. The fact that most British golf courses were closed in January helped with sobriety. No slugging back a shot of whisky to ward off the effects of hypothermia, no buying a round for your opponent(s), no shelling out for that unlikely hole-in-one.
The other thing newsmen swore off in January was retrospectives, those hastily thrown-together end-of-year reviews that were intended to make up for the fact that no newsworthy events ever happened around Christmas and New Year. So I thought now would be a good time to recall my favourite golfing moment of 2019.
Tiger won another Major. Who cares? Sergio got ejected from the Saudi International for intentionally damaging greens. Big deal. I made a birdie two at the 5th hole at Boschhoek. Small potatoes. Well, actually, I’m quite proud of myself, but I can tell you’re not really interested.
No. My golfing highlight of 2019 happened on an overcast July day in Northern Ireland. Rory McIlroy was standing on the 1st tee at Royal Portrush, waiting for the crowd to settle down after The Open Championship starter had announced his name. He had an iron in his hand and a monkey on his back called ‘favourite’.
McIlroy, a Northern Irishman from Holywood, was playing an Open Championship in Northern Ireland. The Open had left the British mainland just once before, in 1951. The winner on that occasion was Max Faulkner, an Englishman from Bexhill-on-Sea, where the Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler came from.
For Faulkner it was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, but McIlroy was different. So certain had his father, Gerry, been of his son’s talent, that in 2004 he took a £200 bet that Rory would win The Open in the following 10 years. He got 500-1 with Ladbrokes and cashed in the bet when Rory won at Royal Liverpool in 2014.
The finest golfer of his generation had four Majors to his name but none since The PGA Championship in 2014. The crowd on the 1st at Royal Portrush were determined to be part of history and, in a way, they were. In Wednesday’s practice round, McIlroy had blocked his drive out of bounds, right. The following day, attempting to avoid a repeat, he hooked it out of bounds, left.
To put it into perspective, McIlroy was not as far out of bounds as Ian Baker-Finch was at St Andrews in 1995. The 1991 Open champion snap-hooked his opening drive 150m left, across two whole fairways. Caddies with lifelong service at the home of golf had never seen anyone do that before.
In 2019, McIlroy reloaded, found the left rough, hit that into an unplayable lie, took a penalty drop, chipped on and two-putted for an eight. Starting his round midway through the day, he stood on the 2nd tee, seven shots off the lead.
You are entitled to ask why such misfortune is my moment of the year. Because golf, more than any other sport, reminds us of our mortality. Rory McIlroy can play a hole like a 24 handicapper and a 24 handicapper can play a hole like Rory McIlroy.
DidI ever tell you about my two at the 5th at Boschhoek?