The Rusacks Hotel in St. Andrews stands right alongside the 18th fairway, with a gorgeous view of one of the most famous finishing holes in golf. The McIlroy family stayed there all week, and every morning, Rory McIlroy would look out his window and see the imposing yellow scoreboard that loomed over the 18th green.
The banner along the front of the grandstands read EVERYTHING HAS LED TO THIS. For someone who hasn’t won a major in eight years, it seemed like a literal sign that this was his week, that Sunday would be his day.
It wasn’t. McIlroy, who led the Open Championship by four strokes coming into Sunday, lost by two as eventual champion Cameron Smith and playing partner Cameron Young did what McIlroy couldn’t — make long putts at crucial moments.
This was a “duel” in the same way that someone walking alongside train tracks as a locomotive approaches is a “race.” McIlroy just never got his putter going; he ranked 55th in the number of putts this week, while Smith ranked second. With that kind of discrepancy, it’s only a matter of time before the pursuer overtakes the leader.
Not long before Smith would begin speculating how many beers fit in the Claret Jug — his assumption: two — McIlroy was doing what he almost always does, facing the music even as yet another disappointing major settled down on his shoulders.
He kept his perspective, as usual — “At the end of the day, it's not life or death. I'll have other chances to win the Open Championship and other chances to win majors” — but this has to burn like nothing since his collapse on the 10th at Augusta National in 2011.
McIlroy is famous for the strut he adopts when things are going well. He’ll stride off the tee and down the fairway like he owns the joint, shoulders back, chest out. It’s as primal a stance of aggression as golf will allow, and for McIlroy, it all too often leads to a round-killing mistake — an overcooked drive, a wayward approach, a skidding putt that doesn’t end anywhere near the pin.
So it’s no small irony, then, that on a day when McIlroy played some of the smartest golf he’s ever played, he needed more of the strut. A four-stroke lead should have been enough to hold off any competition … unless the competition is dropping five birdies in a row.
Playing controlled golf, McIlroy said, worked “until I needed to respond to what Cam [Smith] was doing out there. Coming down on 14, I knew that at that point Cam had birdied to go to 19 and I was at 18, so I knew that I needed to respond. I just couldn't find the shots or the putts to do that.”
From the 10th hole on, Smith just would ... not ... miss. And McIlroy, for his part, was just the tiniest bit short, just the smallest fraction wide. While McIlroy parred his way around the course, and while his playing partner Viktor Hovland was falling off the pace, Smith grew from curiosity to annoyance to threat to existential danger. As he marched back toward St. Andrews, McIlroy could hear the cheers ahead of him, could see Smith carving his way deeper and deeper into red numbers.
“I felt like I didn't do much wrong today, but I didn't do much right either,” McIlroy said after the round. “It's just one of those days where I played a really controlled round of golf. I did what I felt like I needed to, just apart from capitalizing on the easier holes — around the turn, 9, 12, 14. If I had made the birdies there from good positions, it probably would have been a different story.”
And so that left him standing in the 18th fairway, 27 yards from the pin, almost directly in front of the Rusacks Hotel. He needed a miracle that wouldn’t come, an eagle chip that — like so many others on Sunday — just wouldn’t drop.
“It was either hole it or nothing, really. I wasn't really trying to go for the T2 with Cameron Young at that point,” he said. “As soon as I passed the hole, I was like, well, that was … I gave it a good shot. It wasn't meant to be.”
Earlier that morning, he’d awoken to look out at the scoreboard looming overhead, and he’d seen his own name at the very top. He thought about how he was just 18 holes from keeping it there for a year.
“At the start of the day, it was at the top, but at the start of tomorrow, it won't be,” McIlroy said Sunday evening. “You've got to let yourself dream. You've got to let yourself think about it and what it would be like.”
Maybe someday he’ll find out again.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.