Nine years; 3,288 days. That’s the length of time which has now elapsed since Rory McIlroy won a major championship. The omens had been good coming into Hoylake, the expectation as high as ever, but in the end a final round of 68 left him seven shots behind the winner, Brian Harman.
There were moments, early in rounds three and four, where it looked as if McIlroy might make a charge. But in the end any promise sputtered out in the rain and seasoned Rory watchers will have seen this movie before. In a way it’s like the Godfather 3, only inverted. Just as you think he’s in, they pull him back out. The “they” in this instance, however, refers not to the mob but the greens and McIlroy’s be-hoodooed putter.
“Solid” was how the world No 2 opted to describe his tournament. “I improved on my score every day,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, I missed a few putts yesterday. But I felt like I putted a bit better today. It was just hard. I needed to go out and shoot something 63, 64-ish, but it’s really hard to do that in those conditions. Overall it was a solid performance, not spectacular, but I have a lot of optimism going into the rest of the year.”
Was this outcome really a surprise? There had been victory in the Scottish Open and second place at the previous major, the US Open in Los Angeles. But history suggests that golfing champions win their cups in clusters. The number of players to have gone a decade between titles can be counted on the fingers of one hand. That the list ends with Tiger Woods and his 2019 resurrection at Augusta adds lustre to the achievement, but the majority of the game’s greats haven’t pulled it off. Perhaps expecting McIlroy to be an exception is unfair.
Yet it remained the case that he was one of the few players who delivered moments to make the educated crowd at Royal Liverpool perk up like meerkats. Yes, he had contrived to find the pot bunker off the 18th green, but the wedge shot to get him out of it was the play of the first day. On the last day, the 6th, 10th, 14th and 15th holes were blessed with the kind of delicate, precise approach play that was pretty much unique in this year’s field; the ball pitching low, arcing in, then dropping dead like a stone. McIlroy could find his way out of anything, the trouble came in finishing it off.
The stats showed that, at Hoylake, the 34-year-old was sixth in strokes gained off the tee, second from tee to green, but 56th in strokes gained from putting (for the Open, read the PGA Tour too: 2nd off the tee, 89th in putting). This final round, as McIlroy himself observed, saw his disadvantage redressed somewhat. It included his best putt of the tournament, a firm straight push on the third that ran 50ft uphill into the hole. But for every success there were disappointments, with birdie opportunities passed on the 9th, 11th and 13th among others.
If you were to try to divine the collective sentiment of the crowd, the best guess would surely be that the moments of genius outweigh any ultimate frustration. When grown men shout “We love you Rory” from behind the cordon they’re not doing so ironically. Yes, they want him to win, but more than that, they want to see him play.
It’s easier for them, though. McIlroy brought a big smiling presence to the tournament, bonding in particular with Tommy Fleetwood, and he had some kind words for Harman too. “If I know Brian like I think I do,” he said, “I don’t think this win is going to change him as a person.” That McIlroy is a great ambassador for the game of golf has been proven indisputably over the past 12 months of the LIV farrago and was only reinforced here.
Perhaps that responsibility weighs heavily, or perhaps the task of living up to the affection in which he is held by the golfing public is equally hard. On the other hand, with two second-placed finishes and one third in the past eight majors, maybe his luck is just out. But yet, it doesn’t feel that way.
Most likely, the cause of McIlroy’s major distractions come from within, and any solution will have to be found there too. When, at the clubhouse, he was asked to consider why he had not been able to add to the four titles he won early in his career, McIlroy’s eyes seemed to lose their customary sparkle as he chewed over his thoughts.
“Would I have loved to have picked one of those off over the last two years?” he said of the might-have-been majors, “Absolutely. But most times I tee it up, I’m right there.” His performances now, he said, are better than they were in the previous five years. “I just keep looking forward.”