Irish Open: Rory McIlroy wilts under weight of expectation... but he's still the people's champion
McIlroy and partisan crowd crestfallen at early exit
Oh Rory, that's not the way it was supposed to be.
The homecoming king was expected to head into the weekend with a shot at adding the Irish Open prize to his already crammed trophy cabinet.
Almost 20,000 people turned up at Royal County Down yesterday in the hope the world number one would produce some of that McIlroy magic.
But, it became clear, even from the first tee, it was all over for the crowd favourite.
"His swing didn't produce the usual zing. Rory's usually the king of the zingers, but not today," said a golf enthusiast as the 26-year-old's ball veered slightly off course.
Rory appeared to agree. He stood watching the ball to see where it was heading.
According to Alison Campbell, who just minutes earlier had cheered on her husband Darren Clarke, that is a sign a golfer is unhappy. As she watched her husband tee off from the fairway, she noted the speed with which he picked up his tee.
"Oh, that was good. I now know that if he picks the tee up straight away he's happy. If he watches the ball he's looking to see where it's gone so then I know he's not happy," explained Alison who was planning to walk all 18 holes with Danny Willett's wife Nicole.
How the two ladies managed to remain looking so glamorous after several storms of biblical proportions swept across the course is a mystery.
"I hope he gives what they want to see," Alison said as the crowds cheered on her husband.
But there was no doubt who everyone wanted to see. He may have lost his zing, but Rory fever failed to fade. Almost an hour before he was due to tee off, crowds started to gather at the fairway to get a good view.
By the time Rory himself had arrived, the area was thronged with people, from hyper school children to grey-haired pensioners. As soon as he was spotted, the cheers echoed right across the course.
"I'm feeling really emotional. I wanted him to win this. I mean, it's a homecoming for him. He deserves it," Laoise Maguire, who had travelled from Cork with her husband Eoin and their three sons, said. "The pressure has got to him. It's going to affect his performance. But look, he could fall on his face and everyone would still love him," added Eoin.
"I feel so sorry for him. Everyone wants a piece of him. I'm devastated for him that he's not doing well. But look at what he has done for golf, for Newcastle and for his charity. He's still a hero," said a woman who had travelled from Dublin.
A group of 24 Primary 7 pupils from Kilkeel Primary School managed to tease a laugh out of a slightly forlorn-looking Rory.
"Rory, Rory, Rory, Rory," they chanted as he walked by them.
Their sporting hero gave them a little wave and a smile before chuckling to himself at their persistent chants.
"It was too good an opportunity to pass up on. This is right on our doorstep. It is a great day out for them," the school's vice-principal Colin Quinn said.
In Newcastle town itself, even the non-golfing fans just wanted to know about Rory.
"How's he doing? Is he going to pull back," asked one business owner.
"My son is obsessed with Rory. We're not a golfing family, but now he wants a set of clubs and to join a club. He's only nine," another business owner said.
Despite all the support, it was still a massive setback for the Co Down superstar, who invested so much time and effort into the competition.
"The support out there was phenomenal but this is going to be the third year in a row that they won't see me through at the weekend and that is disappointing to say the least," a glum-looking Rory said when he failed to make the cut to remain in the competition.
Nevertheless, it is understood Rory intends to stay around for the remainder of the competition.
Despite the exit of the main draw, Newcastle was still buzzing.
"This has been amazing for Newcastle. People have been saying that parts of the town have been a ghost town during the day, but in the afternoon and evening times it has really come alive. The town looks so well. This can only be good for repeat business and tourism," Castlewellan student Paul Sharkey said.
"We haven't stopped from Wednesday morning. It has been so busy, It has been great," a waitress in a local cafe said.
But, back in Royal County Down, there were quite a few tears among Rory fans.
"I'm heartbroken. I really thought he'd do it. I don't really have much more interest in the tournament now," Shirley Graham from Limavady said.
Let's all hope he gets his zing back soon.