It’s not that Rory McIlroy played poorly. It didn’t drive badly either. McIlroy, in fact, did almost nothing wrong.
Not a lost shot in 18 holes. A round of 70 to go with three in the 60s. It’s hard to remember when McIlroy last played this well in a major when it mattered. Probably when he won them.
Yet, somehow, it wasn’t enough. Somehow a strategy that was executed as well as one would expect given the enormous pressure of running a St Andrews Open, left him narrow. McIlroy had not taken into account the X factor, as delivered by Cameron Smith.
Slow and steady did not win this race. McIlroy played an admirably controlled game, delivered the kind of calm, resilient performance that every professional is expected to wrap up a major on day four, and then was knocked down by Smith’s whirlwind of nine birdies.
Rory McIlroy would have been the ‘ideal’ Open winner for the breakaway LIV Tour year
There were five in a row, holes 10 through 14, just when McIlroy felt his job was done. Beat Viktor Hovland in their one-on-one duel, and the prize would be his. The pair led the field by four strokes as they marched to the first tee. And McIlroy left Hovland in his wake. Yet the danger, it seemed, lay ahead.
The Camerons, Smith and Young, played with the advantage of not leading the Open. They weren’t exactly under the radar, but they were a stain on his outfield.
Smith took the lead after 68 holes and never gave it up, Young hit the 18th to finish a shot behind him and in that moment demote McIlroy to third. In a two-horse race, as the song from the terrace says.
As McIlroy rode last, the champion was long gone, signing for 64. What was supposed to be a duel was overrun by a third. McIlroy really couldn’t have done much more. Sink more 12 or 15 foot putts? Yes of course. Everyone needs to sink more 12 and 15 foot putts. Still, he would have imagined that the score he shot on day four would win the Open. Indeed, he only recorded 70 as he tried to catch the last one to force a play-off.
McIlroy had misleading accusations on the final day when he was already out of contention, but it was the other way around. His score was a shot higher than it probably would have been, as he was trying to pull off a miracle.
There was to be no miracle, unfortunately, not for him. He looked exhausted, in tears, coming out of 18. Losing while playing badly and that is explained. Losing and playing like that, with the public behind him too, and it’s hard to take. If not now when?
The 33-year-old left in tears and exhausted as he narrowly missed out on the championship
If not here, where? McIlroy’s putter has gone cold, it’s true. But not so cold. It was close on so many occasions, two rolls shorter or an inch or two wide. And these are the margins of golf. It’s the difference, as in any elite sport, between success and failure. This is why the LIV circuit is an abomination, because its rewards come whether the putter is hot or not.
And McIlroy would have been the perfect champion for the breakaway year. Not just because this is the 150th Open in the land of golf, but because McIlroy has been the most vocal critic of the Saudi-funded rebel tour, given that Tiger Woods barely plays now.
McIlroy is the champion of tradition, history, competition, ease. Not that Smith is a deserter or a dissident, but rather that he doesn’t talk about it as much as the Northern Irishman.
“I think the PGA Tour is the pinnacle of golf, and that’s where I want to be,” Smith said earlier this year. “I want to play against the best guys in the world, and if they play here then I want to play against them.”
Cameron Smith snatched the 150th Open title with one blow from Cameron Young in second
Of course, that leaves the door open at a time when the best players in the world are fleeing the PGA in droves, but that time hasn’t come yet. Smith is therefore a worthy champion in more ways than one. He knows politics. And yesterday, his game was just sublime.
It may have helped that he didn’t carry the same burden as McIlroy until later in the day. But that still doesn’t explain his brilliant par stop at Road Hole 17th, or the confident way he shaved another shot off his score at the end. Without it, he would have been in a play-off with Young.
So what was wrong with McIlroy? Let’s just say the greatest golf is when strokeplay becomes matchplay and that was the challenge facing the leaders on Sunday.
Anyone with a penchant for the game will remember duels, in the sun or not. Jack Nicklaus versus Tom Watson, Nick Faldo versus Scott Hoch or Greg Norman, Henrik Stenson versus Phil Mickelson.
McIlroy finished third despite leading alongside Viktor Hovland at the end of Saturday’s game
Everything a player does affects their opponent and vice versa. Often the tournament leaders are separated by distance, the odd hole, maybe more. Bad weather can sometimes cause the leader to fight an opponent now safely settled in the clubhouse. It’s still a sight but not completely fulfilling.
It was going to be different and both men should have mentally prepared for it.
Yet when golf becomes a duel, it reveals its gladiator side. And McIlroy and Hovland spent so long swinging swords at each other that they barely noticed that Smith had also entered the Coliseum ready to dismantle them both.
He didn’t have to worry about Hovland, McIlroy took care of the Norwegian, who blinked first with a four-man bogey and never recovered, finishing tied for fourth.
Yet in doing so, McIlroy seemed to think that was all he had to do. That he could play conservative golf and win the 150th Open, majestic as a galleon, much like Nick Faldo at Muirfield in 1992.
Yet Smith was playing golf aggressively and bravely, which challenged that. He birdied five straight on the back nine. He took the lead from McIlroy at 19 under.
The Northern Irishman has consistently challenged the Saudi-backed LIV tour
Suddenly, McIlroy had to find a change of gear, a second strategy. Far from being his target, Hovland was irrelevant. McIlroy had done the job for him only to be faced with an even bigger one. How to beat a man who plays the golf of his life, an enemy suddenly invisible in the group waiting for him.
It’s hard to fault the fact that McIlroy failed this particular test. The other players are also entitled to excellence. Smith won the Players Championship, he’s Australia’s No. 1 – a true major was surely only a matter of time. What’s important now is how McIlroy recovers and reacts.
After so much speculation that a major fifth was beyond him, to get this close is a crushing blow. It sounded low last night. He can’t be weak for long. Golf needs McIlroy, and it needs McIlroy to play like this. Except not exactly like that. Just a fraction better. That would have been enough. Just a fraction.