CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Rory McIlroy was an 18-year-old with a big head of curls and a big game to match when he teed it up as an amateur in his first British Open at Carnoustie in 2007.
Carefree and unafraid, he played the first round without making a bogey and went on to win the silver medal as low amateur. Soon he would turn pro, and anyone who knows golf knows how well the story has unfolded since.
The mop of hair is now closely trimmed, barely sticking out the back of his Nike hat. He’s gotten married, become rich and has four major championship trophies on his fireplace mantle.
But as he returns to the site of his first major championship, the memories of being young and on an adventure of a lifetime come back. And he wonders why it all can’t be that simple again.
“I look back at those pictures,” McIlroy said Wednesday, “and the more I can be like that kid, the better.”
Father Time waits for no one, of course, but it’s not like McIlroy is now a senior statesman in golf. He’s 29 and in his prime, and the oddsmakers in Britain make him one of the favorites to walk off the 18th green on Sunday with his second claret jug.
But with his massive success over the years comes massive expectations. And McIlroy is the first to admit that sometimes trying to live up to those expectations can be wearing.
“I think sometimes I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and just happy to be here,” he said. “I was just trying to soak everything in, and I was just so grateful to be here.”
McIlroy tees off Thursday in search of another title in a tournament that has given him more than just memories. He’s got his silver medal from 11 years ago, and he’s also got his name on the claret jug for his wire-to-wire win at Royal Liverpool in 2014.
He was the No. 1 player in the world then, and quickly followed the Open with a win at the PGA Championship the next month. He was on such a run that people in golf started talking about his chances of eventually passing Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus with the most major championship wins ever.
But while he still wins on a regular basis, there hasn’t been another major title since. He’s struggled when it really counts, including at the U.S. Open last month, when he shot 80 in the first round and failed to make the cut.
A win here this week might just be what he needs to jump-start the talk about multiple majors once again.
“I’ve always said that my performances in the majors at that point, that wasn’t the norm,” McIlroy said. “That wasn’t my normal level. That was above my normal level, and then you sort of — you go back down, and then you build yourself back up again. But everything finds its balance. And even the 14 that Tiger won, that was him at his 100 percent best. We’re not all going to be like that every single time. There’s going to be times where you do struggle with this and with that.”
If McIlroy does have an advantage at this Open, it’s not just that he played well at Carnoustie in 2007. He’s also finished no worse than fifth in his last three Opens, including his win at Liverpool.
If there’s any added pressure at this Open, though, it’s because next year the tournament moves to Royal Portrush in McIlroy’s native Northern Ireland, where he would like nothing better than to play as the defending champion.
“I’d obviously be very happy and be very proud to be the defending champion at a golf course that I know very well and playing in front of home fans,” McIlroy said. “Geez, if it all worked out like that this week I’d be one very happy man heading out of here.”
There’s lots of golf to be played before that might happen, of course, but it’s probably not wise to sell McIlroy’s chances short. He knows links golf, knows Carnoustie and knows what he’s capable of.
Now all he has to do is play four solid rounds of golf and see what happens.
“I feel like, if you put yourself in position enough times, you’ll find a way to get it done,” McIlroy said. “And I found a way to get it done four times, and hopefully I find a way to get it done a few more times before I’m finished.”