FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
Rory McIlroy and the one that got away at St. Andrews
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — At 2:50 p.m. local time on Sunday, Rory McIlroy split the first fairway of the Old Course, beginning his date with destiny. His expression was impassive, but the magnitude of the moment could be seen through the baby-faced standard bearer on the edge of the tee box. He had stood dead-still while McIlroy played his tee shot, but the sign he held vibrated noticeably. It wasn’t the wind. “My hands were shaking,” the kid said a few minutes later. “I don’t know why I’m so nervous, but I am.”
The golf world was equally aflutter. Rarely have a man and a moment seemed so perfectly aligned. McIlroy feathered a prudent wedge 18 feet beyond the hole. The putt didn’t go in, but he was off and running in the final round of the 150th Open Championship.
All week long the players remarked about how isolated and even lonely the first tee feels, far removed from the grandstands. Now McIlroy stepped to the claustrophobic second tee box, with fans, photographers and tournament officials practically in the way of his backswing. It’s a blind tee shot, with only gorse bushes as aiming points, but McIlroy plays the Old Course every year in the Dunhill Links and has come to know intimately all of its quirks and crags. He smashed a drive 30 yards past his playing partner, Viktor Hovland, no piker, but the young Norwegian put his ensuing wedge closer to the hole. The pars that followed were an OK way to settle into the round, but it was a dangerous precedent; although McIlroy and Hovland were four strokes clear of the field, they could not play defense while the rest of the field was attacking on a day with gentle breezes.
On the par-4 third hole McIlroy’s drive missed a pot bunker by a foot or two—thank ye, golf gods!—and bounded to within a half-wedge shot of the green. When he stuck a crafty pitch to six feet, the crowd exploded. As soon as Hovland’s putt expired next to the hole the cheers rang out: “Let’s go Rory!” But the putt refused to drop and the ensuing collective groan was a mix of disbelief and low-grade concern.
Hovland’s three-putt from long range on the fourth hole gave McIlroy the lead alone and once again the crowd was at full-throat. Following McIlroy and Hovland, in tartan pants, was Jamie Weir, a Sky Sports reporter from Northern Ireland whose sister went to school with McIlroy. He did not try to hide his rooting interest. “In my entire life I’ve never wanted any outcome at any sporting event as much as I want Rory to win this,” Weir said. Of course, he had nothing on the kid in the gallery carrying a handmade sign that said, “Rory, I’m named after you!”
The fifth hole is the first of only two par 5s at the Old Course, making it a crucial scoring opportunity; in the group ahead of McIlroy, Cam Smith’s tidy two-putt birdie pulled him within two strokes of the lead. McIlroy unleashed a 340-yard drive but was still 256 out, as the pin was at the very back of the Old Course’s biggest green. He produced a majestic long-iron shot that landed in the center of the putting surface and then kicked and crawled and trickled to 18 feet. The longer the ball rolled, the louder it got. McIlroy, having played a blind shot from the recessed fairway, bounded up a hillock to get a view. The tiniest smile flashed across his face as he saw his ball cozied up to the flag way off in the distance. He missed the eagle putt, but the tap-in birdie pushed him two clear of Hovland, whose wayward drive doomed him to a par.
On the sixth and seventh—both short, downwind par 4s—McIlroy continued the worrying trend of squandering perfect drives with mediocre putts (No. 6) or imprecise wedges (No. 7). After a routine two-putt par on the par-3 eighth, McIlroy had a long wait on the ninth tee as Cameron Young, tied with Smith for third at the start of the day, drove into the gorse and, after an unplayable-lie penalty, took a second bogey to go with four birdies. The ninth is the beginning of the Old Course’s most pivotal stretch, with three drivable par 4s in the span of four holes. McIlroy munched on a banana and then idly swished his club to stay loose. You could feel the anticipation building. His driver remains one of the most potent weapons in the game, and now McIlroy, already leading by two strokes, had a chance to grab this tournament by the throat. But when it was finally time to play, he produced a toey push that expired short and right of the green. (Hovland, in a curious act of capitulation, laid up with an iron off the tee and made par.) Still, McIlroy had a good angle to a middle-left flag on one of the Old Course’s most benign greens. It’s the kind of shot he routinely knocks stone-dead, but McIlroy left it 12 feet short with an indifferent effort. Then he smashed the putt through the break. Another missed opportunity. “I’m hating every minute of this,” Weir said.
McIlroy rallied by driving the green of the downwind 386-yard 10th. While he was sizing up a 100-foot putt, Cam Smith was rolling in a 16-footer on No. 11 for his second straight birdie. For a moment, McIlroy’s lead had been sliced to a lone stroke. But he deftly snuggled his putt to tap-in distance for a much-needed birdie, climbing to 18 under. The crowd released an hour’s worth of bottled-up tension with the loudest roar of the day. McIlroy had yet to miss a green in regulation and still had two very short par 4s (12 and 18) and a reachable par 5 (14) coming. In the gallery and across golf Twitter, the mental math was fast and furious. If McIlroy could take care of business coming home he could easily get to 20 under; either of the Camerons would have to go bananas to match that. It felt as if McIlroy already had one hand on the claret jug. At the farthest point from town, the mood was festive, trending toward giddy. Rory McIlroy was going to win the 150th Open Championship, end his brutal eight-year drought in the majors and singlehandedly thwart the Saudis. You can’t make this stuff up.
McIlroy parred the fiddly par-3 11th and then smashed another perfect drive about 10 paces short of the green at the par-4 12th. (Up ahead, the relentless Smith had driven the green and made a tough two-putt birdie to cut the lead back to one.) The hole was cut just beyond a deep swale and McIlroy, wielding a wedge, played a defensive shot that expired 12 feet short. He hadn’t made a putt of any consequence since the 17th on Friday afternoon, and when this one slid by the hole, the crowd shrieked with anguish. “I was hitting good putts,” McIlroy said afterward. “They just weren’t dropping.”
Actually, with the Open hanging in the balance, the definition of a good putt is one that goes in. “It’s hard, like, there’s a lot of putts today where I couldn’t just trust myself to start it inside the hole,” McIlroy added. “I was always starting it on the edge or just outside thinking it was going to move. More times than not, they just sort of stayed there.”
At 13, McIlroy pulled his approach miles left of the hole. As he trudged toward the green, a big scoreboard announced the gathering storm: Smith, having activated Steph Curry Mode, had rained in a fourth consecutive birdie on 13 and they were now tied for the lead, with McIlroy’s adversary enjoying all the momentum. Rory, from 60 feet, rolled a beautiful putt that screeched to a halt one revolution short, dead in the jaws. Now a sense of foreboding had settled over the Old Course. “This is the most unpleasant experience of my life,” Weir said.
The 614-yard 14th was always going to be a swing hole. Smith, finishing off one of the great birdie runs in Open history, got up-and-down from behind the green to seize the lead. The news ripped through the crowd. McIlroy uncorked two mighty blows, but his second shot failed to climb a steep slope and rolled back 20 yards short of the green. The hole was again cut just beyond a steep swale. McIlroy employed his putter and faced a defining choice: Try to knock it close and risk having the ball roll back toward him or play a safer shot past the hole. Whether it was faulty execution or faltering nerve, McIlroy bashed the putt 18 feet past the pin. Inexorably, he missed the comebacker, then rubbed his face over and over, his first visible sign of exasperation. “I wasn’t really concerned about what anyone else was doing,” McIlroy said of his final-round strategy. “I was just doing my own thing. It was working well until I needed to respond to what Cam was doing out there. Coming down 14, I knew that at that point Cam had birdied to go to 19 and I was at 18, so I knew that I needed to respond. I just couldn’t find the shots or the putts to do that.”
As McIlroy reached the 15th tee, there were the familiar cries of “Let’s go, Rory,” but the tone had curdled. It was now plaintive, even desperate. McIlroy needed a birdie, but he had made only two in the preceding three hours, both on two-putt kick-ins. (Meanwhile, Young’s birdie at 14 was his seventh of the day, matching Smith’s total to that point, and now he was only one behind McIlroy.) Sitting cross-legged under the rope line were a half-dozen young lads. Their eyes never left McIlroy. His drive peeled toward the left rough, and the crowd murmured its concern. In the quiet, one of the boys said, softly, “You can do it, Rory.” It was touching in its tenderness. McIlroy slashed his ball out of the long grass but it trickled 40 feet too far. He missed the putt and was now running out of holes.
Another towering drive left him only 103 yards into the 16th green. McIlroy had put on a show off the tee, just as he did in winning a U.S. Open and a PGA Championship by eight strokes a decade ago. It seemed then that Rory would overwhelm the sport, but other players embraced the race for distance and cut into his advantage. More to the point, he has never addressed the biggest weakness in his game: imprecise wedge play. He ranks 159th on the PGA Tour this year in approaches from 75 to 100 yards—and in 2013 he was 167th. The shot he faced now, from the left edge of the 16th fairway, felt like his last best chance to make up ground on Smith, but McIlroy hit a dead-pull so disappointing he registered his disgust a millisecond after impact. He was doomed to another par.
McIlroy summoned two tight swings on the Road Hole, the ballsy approach shot bringing the fans to their feet in the massive grandstand behind the green. Now he had a 12-footer for birdie that would help decide the Open. Seven years ago, Jordan Spieth faced a similar putt with the Grand Slam at stake. He missed the par putt. Minutes ahead of McIlroy, Smith had a par putt of about the same length and he gutted it, one last bloodless stroke from the game’s best putter. With the entire golf world holding its breath, with a legacy-altering trophy on the line, McIlroy simply couldn’t will his ball into the hole.
He trudged to the 18th tee and watched in the distance as the Camerons putted on the final green. Whistling and buzzing accompanied Young’s eagle, which momentarily tied him with Smith, one shot ahead of McIlroy. From a thousand feet away it was hard to tell how close Smith’s birdie putt was, but the ball rolled for only a split-second before disappearing. The denouement was stunning in its swiftness. Six holes earlier, McIlroy had led by two strokes. Now he was down two and needed a miracle at 18, which would not come.
Earlier in the week, McIlroy called an Open Championship at the Old Course the “Holy Grail” of the sport. Across 72 holes he found only one bunker—and he holed out the ensuing shot for eagle. On Sunday he hit all 18 greens and did not make a bogey. Yet it wasn’t enough. This wasn’t a collapse, just a slow, agonizing letdown, defined not by a big miss but a series of little slippages. There is no questioning his heart, but McIlroy, 33, must tighten up his game if he wants to win the most exacting and important championships. The Cam Smiths and Scottie Schefflers and Matt Fitzpatricks and Justin Thomases and Jon Rahms of the world are getting the ball in the hole a little bit faster when it matters most.
Afterward, McIlroy conducted himself with his usual dignity, and in his press conference he took the long view, that he is playing at an incredibly high level and had a chance to win each of this year’s major championships. Golf’s most grounded superstar then retreated to his suite at the Rusacks Hotel, which overlooks the Old Course’s 18th hole. He came to the window with his 1-year-old daughter, Poppy, in his arms. McIlroy jiggled her floppy arm to make a little wave, and on an outdoor deck one floor below, a big crowd of revelers cheered the charming scene. A few minutes later another roar went up. This was down near the R&A clubhouse, where Smith had materialized to sign autographs. He was carrying something too. The claret jug.