In the minutes after Rory McIlroy’s Open chances went south – down under, you might say – he spoke about how he dreamed about winning this title, how he’d looked out of the window of his hotel room every morning and visualised his name above all others come Sunday.
His honesty was endearing. It only made you feel for him even more as he faces an eighth year without a major title.
That’s 17 top-10s and nine top-fives since he last lifted a major. On one level, those stats show how close he has come. On another, they just highlight the heartache the 33-year-old must feel at not having won one of these things in a veritable age.
“I’m only human,” he said when asked if he’d imagined what it would be like win here. “I’m not a robot. Of course you think about it and you envision it.
“My hotel room is directly opposite the big yellow board on 18. And every time I go out, I’m trying to envision McIlroy as the top name on that leaderboard.
“At the start of the day, it was at the top, but at the start of tomorrow, it won’t be. You’ve got to let yourself dream. You’ve got to let yourself think about it and what it would be like.”
Nobody should shed any tears for McIlroy. He has a life that most could only imagine in fantasyland, but there were an awful lot of dejected fans out there, an awful lot of people who willed him on.
“I’ll be OK,” he said later. “It’s not life or death. I’ll have other chances to win the Open Championship and other chances to win majors. It’s one that I feel like I let slip away, but there will be other opportunities. The putter just went a little cold. I just couldn’t find the shots.”
Calmness gives way to panic as birdies don’t come
Being out there with him was eventful and painful at the same time. He began with a calmness that was a feature of his play and put him in this lofty position in the first place.
Like his opening three rounds, he didn’t go chasing. He just put himself in position and waited for things to happen. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, things happened. On Sunday, nothing did.
The first real portents of doom came early in his back nine when birdie putts refused to drop, when the Cam Smith roars never ceased, and when the police had to move in to control the massed ranks of fans, one more desperate than the next to pick him up and carry him over the winning line.
As he arrived on the 10th, he was greeted with cries of ‘Ole! Ole!’. Innocent minutes, those. A time when McIlroy led by two and still had the Claret Jug in sight. ‘Rory! Rory!’ they hollered, confident in the knowledge that the next Open champion was walking among them.
By the green at 12 things began to turn. McIlroy missed the kind of makeable putt that Smith was putting away with metronomic ease.
One of the problems was that McIlroy wasn’t hitting it all that close, the second was that nothing was dropping, the third was the electrifying run of the man with the mullet. Five birdies in a row from the 10th. A charge to beat all charges.
The cavalry running with McIlroy grew wild. They spilled in from behind the ropes and no marshal could stop them hitting the fairways. They came in waves. The police were called.
Going down 13 things were turning weird. Uniformed officers galloped around the place trying to chase the galleries back. “Get off the course! Get off the course now or you risk being arrested!”
It could have turned unpleasant but order was eventually restored and the fans retreated. From a safe distance their view was the same – Rory hitting greens and Rory missing putts that would have galvanised his round and kept him clear of the remarkable Australian playing the round of his life.
McIlroy was leaving the tee on 14 when word came through that Smith had motored past him on the leaderboard – 19 under plays 18 under. The mood around the Northern Irishman changed in that moment. From boisterous support to something less lusty. From the celebration of ‘Ole! Ole!’ to the near-pleading tone of ‘Let’s go, Rory!’
The 14th is a par-five and a place to make merry. The fourth easiest hole on the course in the final round. Thirty-six players birdied it, including Smith and his playing partner Cameron Young. Six players eagled it. McIlroy could only make par. Left himself too much to do. The story of his day.
‘I didn’t do much wrong, but I didn’t do much right’
The tension around him at that point was unmistakeable. He says he didn’t feel it, but had he looked to the left or to the right he’d have spotted fans fretting, biting their nails, shouting his name but losing belief that this was going to work out for him.
He needed a spark but everything was flat. Patience had served him well for three days but playing the percentages didn’t work when there was a man playing like God ahead of him. Percentage golf doesn’t cut it when you rival goes birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie on his way to a back nine of 30.
Smith looked in bother on 17 but saved himself with a terrific par putt. McIlroy missed a makeable birdie chance on the same hole soon after. That, pretty much, was that. He needed eagle up the last for a play-off. What chance eagle when making birdie had been such a trial all day?
Smith shot 64, Young shot 65, McIlroy shot 70. Of the top 18 finishers on the board at day’s end, only Viktor Hovland fared worse than McIlroy. The last two on the golf course were the poorest performers among the elite. That’ll be a difficult reality for McIlroy to deal with.
A repeat of his Friday 68 would have taken him into a play-off. Another 66 like the ones he posted on Thursday and Saturday would have brought an end to a preposterous eight-year run without a major title. For one as talented as McIlroy, it’s infuriating and perplexing.
He praised Smith for his brilliance and how worthy a winner he was – the new champion dropped some grim hints later on that LIV might beckon for him – but McIlroy never really fired a shot, never got any momentum going.
He only had two birdies all day. On Thursday he had seven, on Friday he had six, on Saturday he had five plus an eagle.
“I felt like I didn’t do much wrong, but I didn’t do much right either,” he reflected. “I did what I felt like I needed to apart from capitalising on the easier holes around the turn. I’ll rue a few putts that slid by – good putts, but they just weren’t dropping.”
McIlroy said he’ll keep believing this awful major-less run will end soon, that he’ll keep dreaming that his name will finish on top of one of those boards he could see in his mind’s eye from his hotel-room window.
Right now, and for a while to come, there will be a few nightmares, though. His next crack is the one he still needs to complete the Grand Slam, Augusta next April. An eternity. Golf has given him so much but, boy, it’s made him suffer at times. So close, so far away. The wait continues. Agony again.