The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At St. Andrews, Rory McIlroy didn’t do much wrong. It still wasn’t enough.

After a third-place finish in this year’s British Open, Rory McIlroy is still stuck searching for that elusive fifth major championship. (Robert Perry/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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When Rory McIlroy departed the 18th green at St. Andrews, an entire town surrounding him, how could he have possibly prepared his head to hit the pillow? He played the final round of the 150th British Open without a bogey. He played the final round without missing a green in regulation. And he lost to a player who began the day four shots behind him.

That’s nearly irreconcilable. It now appears to be the kind of bafflement that has defined McIlroy’s career. Here’s the reality, so troubling, so static: In the summer of 2014, McIlroy was a carefree 25-year-old raking in the British Open and the PGA Championship to run his total to four majors — and counting. In the summer of 2022, he is the 33-year-old voice of his sport, a star on both sides of the Atlantic. Total majors: Four.

“I’m knocking on the door,” a shellshocked McIlroy told NBC immediately afterward. He seemed trying to convince himself of just that — and understandably.

Do any of his losses sting more than this one? Sure, he blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the 2011 Masters, memorably shooting an 80 on a day characterized by a trip to the cabins to the left of the 10th fairway. But he was all but a different person back then, and his next major was the ultimate bounce-back — a romp in the U.S. Open at Congressional, the week that has provided all the promise every time he tees it up.

Cameron Smith rides a birdie surge to a comeback win at the British Open

No, Sunday is the most scarring, and not because he did anything egregiously wrong — though we will get to the putter in a minute. Rather, he simply didn’t do enough right. Or maybe that’s not even accurate. Majors should be won because the champion is some combination of robotic and magical. On Sunday at St. Andrews, McIlroy had the C-3PO part down. What he lacked was Houdini.

So, his emotions. They were so raw.

“Ummmmm, phew,” McIlroy said, with a pause that was 36 weeks pregnant, when asked about his emotions coming off 18. “Yeah, just disappointment, I guess.”

For many reasons, not least of which because he was in control of both his game and his emotions. For a player who is often defined either by a strut that would make a peacock seem bashful or a slump that would make Eeyore seem buoyant, for so much of the weekend, McIlroy was just … playing. And magnificently so.

That was true when he hit the shot that made you think, “Maybe this is finally his week,” a hole-out from a bunker on No. 10 for a third-round eagle Saturday. Yes, he pumped his fist. But when he strode to fetch his ball from the bottom of the cup, he was comparatively subdued. These things are hard to win, and, Lord, does he know it. There was more work ahead.

The work Sunday, which he started tied with playing partner Viktor Hovland — but four clear of everyone else — was so admirable. The missed putts on the outward nine weren’t glaringly bad. He made no mistakes. When Cameron Smith — who, by the way, won this thing by firing an immaculate and immortal final-round 64 — made a birdie at the 11th to climb within one, McIlroy responded with a casual two-putt birdie at the par-4 10th.

There were eight holes to play. His lead was two. He didn’t make a bogey. And he lost by … two?

Digest that because Rory will surely have a tough time letting the juices turn it to fuel, and take an aside.

Writing about McIlroy so often involves writing about the state of his sport, so a note to those players who have departed for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf: How will you stay sharp between now and the next major, which is the Masters eight months hence? We will see you next at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J., at the end of this month and then twice in September and three times in October. That’s it through the end of the year.

So many of those who departed from the PGA Tour to take the grubby Saudi money offered the feeble and false reasoning that LIV Golf would allow for more freedom in their scheduling. Try again. They can show up only for these 54-hole events that should be under a circus tent when Greg Norman and his cronies offer them, which is infrequently.

For McIlroy and Smith and all the rest of the stars who have pledged to stay with the PGA Tour, there is rhythm and reason to preparing for majors — and it includes the upcoming FedEx Cup playoffs, not to mention the swings through California and Florida to start the calendar year. For the LIV Golf guys — whose highest finishers at the Open were Dustin Johnson, who tied for sixth and was never a threat Sunday, and Bryson DeChambeau, whose final-round 66 lifted him to a tie for eighth — there’s … what, exactly?

Svrluga: Rory McIlroy, once a carefree phenom, has grown into the conscience of golf

All of that is clearly of little solace to McIlroy. It said Sunday night — and it will say for eternity — that Smith won the 150th Open because his putter was otherworldly and McIlroy’s was ordinary. But the takeaway isn’t the why. The takeaway is what it means for his McIlroy’s. With each of these passing opportunities, his legacy stays stagnant, even as his opinions matter more than they ever did.

“I just need to stay patient and keep knocking on the door,” McIlroy said, “and eventually it’ll open again.”

Maybe. Maybe. Phil Mickelson went eight years between majors five and six — but he was 50 for that last one. Tiger Woods went 11 years between majors 14 and 15 — but he was 43 for the most recent. Jack Nicklaus went six years between majors 17 and 18 — but he was 46 when he extended his own record.

Rory McIlroy has now gone eight years — eight years in his absolute prime, when he has won everything else in his sport — without increasing his major championships total from four to five. Sunday at St. Andrews was crippling to contemplate. The Masters is a long way off. By that point, sleep will have to be restful again, right?