ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- After Rory McIlroy made par at the 4th hole Thursday en route to his 66 in the first round of the 2022 Open Championship, he did not proceed to the 5th tee box. He hung back with playing partners Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele as a traffic backup more reminiscent of Los Angeles than St. Andrews ensued on the hole ahead. The group had to wait a good 20 minutes before finally hitting their tee shots.
That was fine with McIlroy, who had already been waiting 12 years for this round to begin. What was another 20 minutes?
After shooting 63-80 (!) in the first two rounds of the 2010 Open and going on to finish T3, McIlroy missed the event's return to St. Andrews in 2015 after a freak soccer accident derailed his opportunity to defend his Claret Jug from the 2014 Open.
"I missed the last Open at St. Andrews because I was injured," he said recently. "I never got a chance to defend my title from the previous year. I never got a chance to go to the champions dinner. I really missed not being there in 2015, and I've had to wait seven years since then to get back. For me, personally, that's why [this Open is] more consequential."
Golf has the tiniest windows. You only get a chance to win The Open at St. Andrews -- a major Jordan Spieth recently called, "arguably the best golf tournament we play" -- every 60 months or so. If you miss that window, who knows where your game or your body will be in another 5+ years.
McIlroy has been waiting even longer for a fifth major championship. When he palmed his fourth in the summer of 2014 at Valhalla -- winning the PGA Championship after capturing that year's Open -- it felt like you could double that number and still come up short of his eventual total. Twenty-six majors have passed, and McIlroy's trophy case has not expanded with major hardware.
Golf's major championships are perhaps the hardest events in sports to win, and McIlroy has waited a long time for the state of his game to match up with a venue that suits his play.
After the lengthy delay on No. 5, McIlroy went on an absolute tear. Three straight birdies ensued as the 2014 Champion Golfer of the Year went out in 32. He ran it to 5 under at No. 12 before giving one right back at No. 13. He birdied the par-5 14th and put it on cruise control until he hit the Road Hole. A massive drive that started between the E-L in H-O-T-E-L left him with a minuscule distance in. A 65 seemed plausible.
McIlroy hit a mediocre wedge off the thinnest of lies, though, and labored to make 4. He followed that at the last with a hissing 2-iron that chased all the way up to the green.
As he walked across the most famous bridge in the game, a gaggle of photographers got in place to make sure they got their shot. A commotion stirred behind them as a group of fans yelped about missing out on the only photo they desired: Rory bouncing across the Swilcan Bridge toward whatever the hell the next three days have in store.
Like Rory, they will have to wait.
McIlroy touched off his business-as-usual 66 with a two-putt, sitting just two back of leader Cameron Young entering Friday's second round at the Old Course. It all felt very straightforward and perhaps even a bit simple, especially at the most complex golf course in the world.
"[His final round at Augusta National] was near-flawless," said Morikawa, who also played alongside McIlroy when he shot 64 on Sunday at the Masters. "That was like flawless golf, right? To end it the way we did was even that much more spectacular to enjoy that. Today was a really solid round of golf. Didn't make any errors, hit it in the right spots. When he was out of position, put it in a great spot."
It's McIlroy's third straight rip-roaring start at a major championship. He led outright at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills after a 65 and sat T2 at the U.S. Open after a 67. McIlroy stalled a bit at both of those venues and ultimately failed to claim a trophy at either. After the PGA, he said he was dejected to experience another near miss.
The good news is that he's seemingly fixed his first-round folly at major championships. After six consecutive years of bumpy first-round play, McIlroy has been awesome in three of the first four opening rounds at majors this season. However, he knows it doesn't mean much if he doesn't back it up on Friday.
At the PGA, he was six strokes worse in Round 2. At the U.S. Open, he was two worse. Neither took him out of the tournament, but they were costly rounds that created uphill climbs the rest of the day. Friday is monumental.
"I need to go out tomorrow and back up what I just did today," McIlroy said. "I think that's important to do. But again, this golf course isn't going to change that much, I don't think, between today and tomorrow in terms of conditions. I've seen the golf course now in tournament play and tournament conditions and know what to expect. Tomorrow's important: just to go out and back up what I've done today."
Rory McIlroy 1st round score to par in majors— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) July 14, 2022
McIlroy said he's trying not to think about the eight-year major drought.
"I just have to go out and play the same golf that I've played today, the same golf that I've played over the last few weeks," he said. "I've been playing well. I've been swinging the club well. And I think it's better if I don't think about it that much and I just go out and play golf and try to shoot some good scores on one of my favorite golf courses in the world."
It's a long week, and McIlroy is laboring to stay in the moment. He expects the miniature caverns and seemingly endless ridges and hollows -- that make St. Andrews so famous -- to test the patience of the entire field, including his own.
They're not the only ones whose patience will be tested.
The hollering fans from No. 18 will have to wait another day or two or even three to take a picture of their favorite player on the Swilcan. They'd been waiting a long time as McIlroy and his group dragged their round to the house in just under six hours. Waiting, however, might mean they get one of him with the Claret Jug on Sunday instead of him striding home in second place on Thursday.
McIlroy, too, will have to wait. Another day to see if he can back up 66 with something else great. Two days to see if he has a real chance going into the finale. And three to see if the best player of his generation can resuscitate the green boxes on his major championship Wikipedia page.
It's been a long year, and the irony of playing great golf is that it sometimes makes players more frustrated that they didn't win because, of course, that other guy could have shot 77. Playing great golf sometimes makes you more impatient than playing it poorly.
Everyone in the sport has been waiting for this 150th Open as well as its ending, and waiting often gets more difficult as the end draws near. It's easy to push the future out of your mind when it's way out in the distance. It's much harder when you're three 68s away -- on a golf course you've owned -- from the best win of your career.
Patience is a virtue because nearly every good thing in life is found on the other side. That's true both on and off the course. It's more true for McIlroy this week than it's maybe ever been.
The next three days might make the last 12 years look like a short wait by comparison as McIlroy champs at the bit for a second Claret Jug and struggles to take what the Old will give. The patience has a payoff, though, and it could come come Sunday for Rory because there is no greater reward in golf than winning the most consequential Open at the Home of Golf.