Opportunity Lost

U.S. Open 2024: Rory McIlroy and the newest shade of heartbreak

The four-time major champion's U.S. Open loss was even more painful viewed up close
June 16, 2024
PINEHURST, NORTH CAROLINA - JUNE 16: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts after missing a par putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the 124th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort on June 16, 2024 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PINEHURST, N.C. — The human brain is a relentless association machine, which thrives and sometimes staggers by virtue of its ability to connect one entity to another by thin strings of thought. Standing against the TV tower above the 16th green at Pinehurst No. 2, in the moments before Rory McIlroy attempted his two-foot, six-inch par putt, the sense in my head and stomach was of drama to come—not now, but in the very near future. The universe had granted me a moment, and I noticed in that moment the drone of the blimp, Joe LaCava on the hill nearby taking notes and a yellow flower I had never seen before growing in clusters around the bunker separating me from McIlroy. I opened the PictureThis app on my phone, bent down to take an up-close photo and wondered if the laggy 5G would grant an answer.

Yes: Lantana camara, a species of verbenas. Also known as West Indian lantana, red sage, yellow sage, Spanish flag.

When I looked up, my eyes found the ball just before the first great gasp rose around me. The two-foot, six-inch par putt was a miss. I had the immediate melodramatic thought that after this, he couldn't win the 124th U.S. Open—correct, overall, but only by accident. What is correct beyond second-guessing, though, is that from now until my brain ceases to function, Lantana camara will mean one thing to me: Rory McIlroy, and the greatest pain I've ever witnessed on a golf course.

I followed the leaders until No. 7, when Pinehurst No. 2 loops back to the clubhouse at the seventh hole. That opening foray feels now like a distant universe, unrelated to our present reality. The course loops into the Sandhills after No. 7, and I escaped the sun and waited for them to circle back around. When we left our shelter the second time, Rory and Bryson DeChambeau were tied at seven under. By the time we hopped fences and climbed stairs and ducked under a holly tree to watch Rory tee off on 14, the tie had become his two-shot lead. It hadn't quite been 10 years since his last major at Valhalla—I walked with him that day too, sweating even more in the Ohio River Valley than I was in Carolina—but it had been nine years and 10 months, and now, maybe, the drought was ending.

It's difficult to know how to feel about something like that, and it's too much to untangle here—he has been such a ubiquitous part of so many professional lives for so long, occupying so many roles, sometimes wildly disparate from what came before, that we'd have better luck pinning down the wind. But the concept of him winning was momentous, and I could feel it in the energy of everyone inside and outside the ropes.

There is a patina of dust on this course, the disturbed sand refusing to ever quite settle back to earth, and it looks almost like a smoky haze. We stared through it as Rory drove his ball left, paced down the hill, past Bryson coming up the hill—the first of many times their paths would cross on the final holes. The sun had eased off slightly from its early afternoon intensity, and Rory's wayward drive was safe; in the pine straw on the left, but with an angle, just outside the grasping reach of a pine. He pulled his approach left, absorbed the "Rory!" chants, and held on to his thin slice of oxygen with an up-and-down. But Bryson drove the green on 13 and two-putted for birdie, so that thin slice was now a single stroke.


Jared C. Tilton

Narratives, at these times, run through the brain at a torrential pace, even as you recognize how useless most of them will become within minutes. The narrative now: Nothing could be easy for him, not when you're fighting the demons of a decade, but this is the day he comes through anyway, and it will be all the richer for the struggle.

But this is all fantasy, and I knew it even then. What's really true, as the sun lowers, is that we've reached the moments where every single shot has the potential of becoming the one you remember forever. If that sounds like a romantic notion, think again; it cuts both ways.

It is 5:35 p.m. in Pinehurst. He sips from a gray Yeti water bottle. No part of me can fathom another hour of this.

On 15, the 197-yard par 3, he's too long, and the ball slides to the edge of the native area. The chip is too hard, he's lucky to keep it on the green, and the par putt is long, 31 feet and change.

To watch someone putt from the side of the green, looking uphill, is an odd experience, because the hole becomes a hidden character. There are no longer two visual elements—the moving ball tracking toward the stationary hole, with the potential of the satisfying collision. Instead, you are watching a white sphere roll along a green plane, waiting for it to disappear, but you don't even know where that might be. Rory's putt does not disappear. We're tied at seven under.

The narratives spin on: He's going to blow it again. It was in his grasp and he's going to let it go. Rory drives into the fairway on 16, Bryson hits to 25 feet on the par 3. We can see it unraveling.

Except things are changing fast now. My friend Adam Schupak of Golfweek is with me among the hordes of media following these groups, and unlike me he's been wise enough to carry along one of the blue earpieces they hand out that carries the radio feed. The lack of scoreboards at Pinehurst, and especially the lack of video scoreboards, has created a throwback sensation of waiting for information, and often enough now, I'm waiting on Adam. And because my gaze is probably too much like an expectant child, he looks up and to the left, and only looks back when there's something to convey.

He looks back: "He lipped out!" Bryson has three-putted. And I say back the ineloquent phrase I've been relying on heavily for the last hour, and which I'll continue to revisit: "Oh, shit."

A second later, Rory hits his approach on 16 to the green. He's leading by a shot. He has a prayer at birdie. It's happening again. He has the momentum. It's his tournament to win, case nearly closes. His birdie putt rolls to two feet, six inches.

Lantana camara.

When he misses, Rory employs a strange gesture I've seen before: one hand out in an urgent motion, and it means "stop!" Which seemed here like a supplication both to the ball itself, and to his own mind which was undoubtedly beginning to make mountains of what he'd just done. As we said, we are in the moments when every shot may be the one you remember for a lifetime.

What is the human need to say our prognostications out loud, even when we know they're created on such shaky ground? There is nothing that feels better than spewing false confidence into the air. I see Dan Rapaport of Barstool, and I tell him it's over. There's not a world, I say, in which Rory can recover from missing that putt. He tells me I'm an idiot, and he is correct. But I stand by it, and when I see him again, I might still claim I knew it all along.

Now, for Rory, the remaining holes become a prayer for survival. He's tied with Bryson at six under, but the concept of him making a birdie feels impossible. On 17, the last par 3, it's bad news off the tee—the left bunker. And as Bryson's approach comes to rest 22 feet away on 16, we've entered our final rhythm, which is a mad scramble for pars from Rory, and a hunt for birdies from his charging opponent. He is grasping for a playoff.

Rory makes a stunning sand save, particularly considering the putt he just missed a hole ago, Bryson's birdie lips out, Harry Diamond rakes the bunker, Rory yanks his drive on 18, Bryson hits to 18 feet, but misses birdie again by the skin of his teeth.



David Cannon

We are in the end game; we are in the realm of dreams and nightmares. The clubhouse looms over the scene, the verandahs packed. You must trudge uphill on this hole; they sit still and watch.

The aristida stricta, the wiregrass off the fairways that turns wayward shots into dice rolls, has dealt Rory a rough fate, with a clump of grass directly in front of his ball. He plays a modified bump shot to the front of the green, hits a brilliant chip to inside four feet, and looks down the fairway as Bryson's drive hooks way, way left.

Three feet, nine inches. That's for par, and with Bryson in trouble it could well win him the U.S. Open. At the very least, it's a ticket to a playoff. But we know what's going to happen; we know now, at least. Did we know then too?

The aftermath is a succession of brutalities. Scattered "U-S-A!" chants from the worst people in the crowd ring out when he misses. The ground below the grandstands is lined with dignitaries and photographers and police, and before he navigates between them, Rory turns to take one long look back at the hole.

On some level I am aching with a kind of vicarious pain, the pain I would feel for anyone in this situation, muted somewhat by the potential that a playoff is still possible, but the more immediate thought in my brain is to follow him as long as I'm allowed. How far that is, I'm not exactly clear. He goes down the clubhouse steps into the cold interior. Can I go too? I spot Alan Bastable of Golf.com walking down the steps on the other side, and I follow him like he's a lead blocker. Nobody stops us.

At the bottom of the steps, there's a short hallway leading to scoring, and when Rory enters the room, the attendant closes the door behind him. We are all firing up YouTube TV on our phones now, but the cries from above are happening before the delayed feeds. Mary Stamm-Clarke and her sound man are there from Netflix, but they're shut out of the room too, and for some reason, I look up and a camera is on me. Everybody is sweating. Bryson punches out to the front bunker. The door remains closed. The TV feed shows Rory. I ask Joey Geske of the USGA if I can go in; we both laugh. The door opens. Patrick Cantlay and Joe LaCava exit. The door closes. Bryson hits his bunker shot to four feet; Joe LaCava appears over my shoulder, asking "How close?"

Now we wait for the putt, but a confusing cry rises above—again, we are slaves to slow-traveling information. Did he make it? Did he miss?

The door opens. The light green shirt, the white pants. Rory is out the door, but not so fast that we can't see the shellshocked look on his face. Through the door, on the TV he was just watching, Bryson DeChambeau is celebrating his second U.S. Open.

We follow Rory out the door, down another corridor, to the champions locker room. The Netflix crew gets in; Bastable and I are stopped at the door. Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA, shows up. "Do we want them in there?" he asks. "Do we want them in there?" We don't know who he means. A minute later, someone on Bryson's team comes down the corridor, and he's holding Bryson's bag. He reaches the locker room door, and asks us if Rory is inside. When we say yes, a look of total dread crosses his face, but he enters anyway.

Then Rory exits, and he looks worse than before. He's wearing his failure to such an extent that I have to look away. Suddenly, he's being followed by a stream of people that includes the Netflix crew and the smiling face of Sergio Garcia. He is ahead of us all, and he exits the corridor into the players' parking lot. One bag goes in the trunk of a black Lexus, plate number ET-4795, courtesy of Harry Diamond. They are moving fast. He says his quick goodbyes, gets behind the wheels, backs up. His next maneuver isn't quite a peel-out, but you can hear the tires fight for traction, and it's a little fast for the crowded lot.

Rory McIlroy will not be taking questions.

Can you blame him? To share that unimaginable professional shock, to translate it for public exposure. Maybe you can, and maybe someone else would stay and answer the questions, both profound and inane. But at the very least, it would take a superhuman constitution to overcome the urge to escape.

I also have the urge to escape. I feel it in the words; how I've hid behind setting, and circumstance, and detail, one moment to the next, a chronicling of time with only a subtext of emotion; fill in the void if you want, but as of now I'd prefer not to peer in. It feels on some level idiotic to say that his pain is shared, among these fans, among these writers, among anyone with a bone of empathy. But it is anyway, because it's too acute not to spread; a loss like this has a blast radius, and we're closer than we'd like to be.

Of course, though, it is diluted when it reaches the outer rings. How to contextualize the pain at the center? How to describe what the man himself must feel?

Lantana camara. Red sage. Yellow Sage. Spanish Flag.