Rory McIlroy, fresh off a PGA Championship-killing triple-bogey 6, was striding up a slope to the 18th tee late Friday morning at the Atlanta Athletic Club as a man in the gallery watched from more than 200 yards away.
"There he is," the middle-aged man said to a friend. "He's why we're here."
Remember when golf fans - and others - used to say that about someone else?
Now it's Rory.
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He's why there was a collective gasp Thursday afternoon when he made the ill-advised decision to take on a root while playing from a place he shouldn't have been on the left side of the third hole in the opening round. When you're 22, owner of the U.S. Open trophy and the most envied swing in the game, it's understandable if you feel invincible.
But wrists are fragile and if they go bad, they can kill a golf career quicker than the yips.
Fortunately, all McIlroy did was throw a scare into everyone, including himself.
"It was a mistake in judgment," McIlroy admitted Friday afternoon, having posted a 3-over 143 total through 36 carefully managed holes. "I thought I would be able to get away with it, let go of (the club) at impact and, hopefully, it would be OK.
"But it's hard to let go at the right moment; the club is coming down so fast. I just let go a little late."
Call it the blind faith of youth.
"A 22-year-old Lee Westwood probably would have taken it on. A 38-year-old Lee Westwood probably wouldn't. I guess that's why people turn up to watch him," Westwood said.
Did McIlroy's caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, suggest a less dangerous shot when he saw the ball against the root?
"He's my caddie, not my father," McIlroy said.
McIlroy spent three hours at a medical center Thursday night, passing on an anti-inflammatory injection while being convinced he was in no danger of doing any long-term damage if he continued playing the PGA Championship. There had been a couple of times during the first round, McIlroy admitted, when he thought about walking in, but he was 1-under par through 12 holes in a major so he kept going.
McIlroy slept in a soft cast Thursday night and Friday morning the strained tendon in his right arm was stiff "but not painful." When he went to the range prior to his 8:35 a.m. tee time, he felt no pain on his first few warm-up swings, reassuring him.
He had his wrist and forearm wrapped Friday with a strip of adhesive tape running toward his elbow, giving him the look of a man playing hurt. By his own estimation, McIlroy was playing at about 75 percent, though he looked more comfortable than he had on Thursday when he was noticeably favoring his right hand, trying to shake the pain away after each full swing.
It wasn't his hand that cost him Friday. He slightly mis-hit a 6-iron at the dangerous 17th, the wind held it up and it splashed down in a Georgia pond. Then he three-putted, something he did three times Friday. Wrist aside, McIlroy's putting has been his biggest problem through two days.
Since winning at Congressional two months ago in a performance that resonated beyond golf's traditional boundaries, McIlroy has encountered the first gentle turbulence of his career. He didn't play well at the British Open and complained about the wet, windy and cool conditions, saying he preferred to play when it's 80 degrees and sunny. For a guy born and raised in Northern Ireland, that sounded like a sour note, especially given McIlroy's decision not to take up his PGA Tour membership this year.
"He's a proper links player," McIlroy's agent, Chubby Chandler, said in his young star's defense.
Then McIlroy got into a tweeting match with a European commentator about his course management during the Irish Open. When he confirmed last week that he plans to rejoin the PGA Tour next year and is looking for an American base somewhere in Florida, it didn't sit particularly well back home. Now, the wrist thing.
They're growing pains, though little ones. It also has been noted that McIlroy has broken up with his longtime girlfriend back home and has been seen dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who spends a good bit of time in the U.S. as McIlroy likely is to now.
"Two years ago I wanted him to wait" to join the PGA Tour, Chandler said. "So it's probably the right time. And he can still try it and not want to do it. But I think his life's changed a lot and circumstances at home he's not got the little girlfriend anymore. He's two years older and I can't see him getting homesick as often.
"So I think the time is good. And I think he feels a responsibility as the U.S. Open champion. I do, I really mean that. I really think he does feel a responsibly as the U.S. Open champion that he has to put a bit back into it here."