LOS ANGELES — Just when he needed to keep his eyes on the prize, he blinked. Again. This time with just five holes to play. This time with just one man to beat. This time against an opponent 29 places lower in the world rankings. A triumvirate more gruesome than great.
And so, when he arrives at Royal Liverpool for next month’s Open Championship, nine years will have passed since Rory McIlroy, perhaps the game’s most naturally gifted performer, last won any of golf’s four major championships.
At first it was a blip. Then it became a puzzlement explained by the vagaries of golf. And now? Full-blown habit comes to mind. That is a harsh conclusion though. A bit of good luck at the right time has certainly been absent for some time now. And yet. This is happening too often for one so gifted, happening in ways that resonate. And not in good ways.
Take this latest failure, if beating every top player on the planet bar one can be so described. We’ve all seen this one before. At the Home of Golf 11 months ago, McIlroy lost the 150th Open Championship over the Old Course when he made 16 pars and shot 70 on the final day. Here at the Los Angeles Country Club that part of this ultimately sad scenario was repeated: 16 pars, a round of 70 and disappointment.
It was a coincidence that did not escape the man himself.
“The last real two chances I've had at majors I feel like have been pretty similar performances, like St. Andrews last year and then here,” he said. “I’m not doing a lot wrong, but I didn't make a birdie after the first hole today. So I need to be a little more, I guess, efficient with my opportunities and my looks. Still, in contention going into the final round of a U.S. Open, I played the way I wanted to play. There were just two or three shots over the course of the round that I'd like to have back.”
So whatever afflicts McIlroy, it is clearly difficult to shake, addictive almost. The trickiest aspect, however, is that he isn’t doing a lot wrong. Given that fact, where does he go from here? Which part of his game needs attention? Where exactly is the problem, if indeed there is a problem?
Then again, maybe it’s not so hard to explain. Winning is hard, but never harder than when losing becomes the norm, a fact that gave a familiar feel to the Northern Irishman’s post-round press conference.
“The golf course was playing really tricky, and obviously the scores in the final few groups reflected that,” said an understandably somber McIlroy. “There were a couple of things that I probably would have done differently, but all in all I played a solid round of golf. I hung in there. I never let my head drop. I executed my game plan pretty well. I just didn’t get the putts to drop and hit a lot of edges. That was really the story of the day.”
All true. But not the positive words a champion speaks in the immediate aftermath of victory. Then it is shots of the day, fairways hit and putts made.
“I'm getting closer,” continued the silver medallist. “The more I keep putting myself in these positions, sooner or later it's going to happen for me. I’ve just got to regroup and get focused for Hoylake in a few week’s time.”
In talking with Irish Radio, McIlroy was quick to point out his consistency at the highest level. He claimed ownership of six top-10 finishes in his last seven major starts. And he invoked the record of the most successful major champion of all. Jack Nicklaus won 18 Grand Slam titles and finished second in 19.
“I’ve had two great chances to win in the last year but it hasn’t quite happened for me,” said McIlroy. “Every time these tournaments come up, I find a good enough game to contend. I just have to keep putting myself in position. Jack won so often because he put himself in position so often. If I do the same, sooner or later it’s going to happen.”
If it does, McIlroy could do worse than take some advice from Jon Rahm. After holing out for a closing 65 that hauled him up to a T-10 finish, the Spaniard was asked how the new U.S. Open champion was going to have to play down the stretch. And he nailed it.
“I would say try to take advantage of all those holes up until 10, because from 11 on it's very difficult,” said the Masters champion. “I will say if you have a one-shot lead on 11 tee and you par in, you most likely won't lose the tournament. There could be some birdies out there, but it would be very exceptional golf by anybody to play those holes under par.”
Wyndham Clark played the last eight holes in one over par.
Inevitably, McIlroy was forced to focus on what went wrong rather than right. The short birdie putt missed on the eighth green wasn’t too pretty, but who hasn’t failed to find the cup from that range? It was the wedge that plugged in the face of the greenside bunker that, more likely, will haunt the Northern Irishman’s attempts to sleep over the coming days.
"As I was walking up to the ball, it felt like it was a perfect full sand wedge,” he said. “Hit it hard, get some spin on it. Then while we were getting prepared for the shot, the wind started to freshen a little bit. A full sand wedge wasn't getting there, so I said to Harry, 'three-quarter gap wedge would be perfect.' But I didn't time the shot perfectly. I hit it when the wind was at its strongest and the ball just got hit a lot by the wind, and obviously it came up short. If I had it back, I think I had the right club and the right shot. I might have just had to wait an extra 15 or 20 seconds to let that little gust settle.”
Still, for all the obvious truths in just about everything he said in the wake of defeat, McIlroy was clearly disguising the pain. After watching Clark’s long range putt on the 18th green come up all but dead, he emerged from the scorer’s facility and was forced to wait for a minute or two. Most of that time was spent staring silently at the ground.
Then, after talking to Golf Channel, McIlroy had to wait again for Scottie Scheffler to finish chatting to the print media. Outside the interview area, the stare and the bowed head returned. He’s been there before, but this one clearly hurt, fact McIlroy hinted at in his closing comment:
“When I do finally win this next major, it's going to be really, really sweet,” he said. “I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”
Let’s hope, at least for the sake of his sanity, it doesn’t take that long.