SAN FRANCISCO -- Rory McIIroy held his putter against his left shoulder, defeated. He'd missed a little putt, lipping it out from eight feet, when he needed to finish with three-straight birdies -- not to win, just to have a chance to make the cut in this U.S. Open at Olympic Club.
Only last June, the Irish prodigy won the Open when he ran the table at Congressional, winning by eight shots, going 16-under par, better than anything Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus, or Woods ever did. But now, idling at the green's edge, his body arranged in a loser's slouch, despair his countenance, McIlroy slapped himself upside the neck with his putter, three times.
At the next hole, a drivable par-4, he had a 22-footer for eagle. Aggressive on greens rolling fast and furious, McIlroy ran that one eight feet by and made it coming back. Then, on a par 3 that was the last hole of his second round, still believing a birdie might get him two more days here, he missed from 15 feet -- and then, all hope gone, he contrived to miss the three-foot second putt.
"I thought 3-3-2 might make it," he said later.
Instead, he finished 4-3-4.
Rounds of 77 and 73 had him at his locker telling a gaggle of reporters that he felt he'd played well -- but not well enough for Olympic: "It's just such a demanding golf course and just punishes the slightest shot that's off-line or that's maybe not the right distance. You really have to be so precise out there, and if you're not, you're going to be punished." He is right, of course, about Olympic's sadism but is perhaps too kind in judgment of his game. Briefly No. 1 in the world -- he ascended on 13 top-five finishes in 15 events -- he now is No. 2 and likely to continue his descent after missing the cut for the fourth time in his last five tries.
A year ago, McIlroy's victory in the Open caused a lot of jumping up and down by observers, experts and other soothsayers always on the lookout for Anyone Who Isn't Tiger. They saw McIlroy's masterwork at Congressional as only the first of many. Well. Here's what he has done in the four major championships since: T-25 in the British Open, T-64 in the PGA Championship, T-40 in the Masters, and now, ingloriously, MC in this Open. After the 16 under at Congressional, he is 33-over par in the majors. Not that he was alone in his suffering here. Olympic's greens are firm, not yet concrete but on their way.
Nick Watney, after rounds of 69 and 75, said, "Yesterday it was kind of like playing Ping-Pong out there." Where greens have slopes that can divert an imprecise shot into trouble, those slopes are buzz-cut; if there are no slopes, there are tangles of grass ankle-deep. Fairways are narrow and bordered by a first cut of rough that's sometimes playable and a second cut in which small animals go to escape the sun.
Those conditions are set by the folks who run the Open. The U.S. Golf Association believes par is holy and works to protect it against heretics. Watney again: "After last year at Congressional, you knew the USGA would come out firing -- and they haven't disappointed." Even so, the most unsettling aspect of Olympic may be its radical terrain. To play from a fairway steeply slanted one direction toward a green steeply slanted the other direction is to become disoriented, as on a ship in heavy seas.
Ever walk through a circus funhouse with floors that tilt to and fro under your feet? That, too, is Olympic. And once safely on a green, you must, sooner or later, putt on skating-rink surfaces measured at 13 on Mr. Stimp's meter.
Good question here: after 36 holes, what would an Open champion say to the USGA executive director, Mike Davis, before Davis the Executioner sets up Olympic for the final two days? The 2010 winner, Graeme McDowell, bent at his knees, pressed his palms together, raised his eyes to the heavens, and said, in a whimper, "Be nice to us."
Fat chance. McDowell, in contention again, believes the tournament will be won at near par. "Level-ish," he said. Another Open champion playing well, Jim Furyk, said, "I can definitely see over-par winning."
Alas, that is no longer a concern for Rory McIlroy. He intends to play once more, in the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, before the British Open next month. As he sat at his locker, composed, subdued, he admitted that his poor play over the last six weeks "has made me realize that you just have to keep working hard and that it doesn't always come easy."
Then he was asked how he was feeling -- one of those "Other than that, how'd you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"questions -- and McIlroy managed to answer politely: "Yeah, obviously disappointed," he said. "It wasn't the way I wanted to play. . . . The thing is, we're just not used to playing this sort of golf course week-in, week-out. . . ."
Which means, though he didn't say so, that week-in and week-out on such courses might drive a man to take up a saner line of work, perhaps defusing bombs.
-- Dave Kindred