Rory McIlroy dreamed of winning this Open. Then came heartbreak
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Proximity can be dangerous, perhaps too tempting. Rory McIlroy stayed in the Rusacks this week. One of the top hotels in town, it overlooks the 18th hole at the Old Course. There’s a balcony out back, and earlier this week McIlroy pointed out where his family was staying to Tiger Woods. They waved to Poppy, McIlroy’s 1-year-old daughter.
From his room at the Rusacks, McIlroy said he had a view of the Open Championship leaderboard on the far side of the 1st fairway. When he peeped the board, he would allow his mind to wander. What would it be like if he won this Old Course Open Championship?
“I’m only human,” he said. “I’m not a robot. Of course you think about it. At the start of the day, [my name] was at the top, but at the start of tomorrow, it won’t be. Of course you’ve got to let yourself dream. You’ve got to let yourself think about it and what it would be like.”
Remember that human part. We’ll get back to that.
Rory McIlroy didn’t win the 150th Open Championship. Cameron Smith did, which contradicts all that unscientific information that was pointing toward McIlroy winning this week. It made too much sense.
He entered the day tied with Viktor Hovland and four clear of anyone else. But McIlroy’s putter never helped him out, he didn’t make enough birdies and signed for a two-under 70. Two-under rounds don’t win Old Course Opens — certainly not in the benign conditions players faced this week — which is why Smith swooped in with an eight-under 64 and one-shot win over Cameron Young, who shot 65. McIlroy finished solo third, two behind Smith.
“I’ll be OK,” he said. “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. It’s one that I feel like I let slip away, but there will be other opportunities.”
On Sunday in St. Andrews, bells rang in town. It’s part of its charm. McIlroy said on Saturday he’s been getting used to a midmorning nap with these afternoon tee times. But one of the most important parts of his routine is to put his phone away. That helps him block out distractions. He hasn’t won a major for nearly eight years; he’s tried lots of things to deal with the nerves, the thoughts, the overanalyzing.
McIlroy has an interesting history here at the Old Course. In 2010, he opened with 63, only to shoot 17 strokes worse on Friday (“Two-putted for a good 80,” he said, when asked what happened afterward.) In 2015, when he was world No. 1, he hurt his ankle in the infamous “kickabout” with friends and had to withdraw.
Now, seven years later, he’s married and a father. In the years in between, he’s wrestled with fame, battled with how to prepare for majors and matured into one of the most respected and influential players in golf. It was fitting that he was in the pole position. Two days earlier, McIlroy had shared a fairway with and tipped his cap to Woods, who was perhaps playing in his final Open at St. Andrews, and it seemed as if the stage was now his.
The galleries were so pro-McIlroy it was laughable, literally. Walking off the 4th tee, a cluster of spectators giggled when one fan, during a quiet moment, yelled “Let’s go, Viktor!” after a roar of “Let’s go, Rory!” filled the air. Let’s go, Viktor? Ha! What a gas!
“I thought the fans were great today,” McIlroy said. “I thought they were really, really good. Unbelievably supportive to me, wish I could have given them a little more to cheer about.”
Even when he started slowly, he was still the favorite and held the outright lead. The fans who weren’t following him were waiting to see him down the stretch, standing in long lines to get into the 1st hole grandstands to secure a view of the 18th green. Fans without tickets crammed against the fence on The Links, hoping to get close enough to get a peek of the scene.
Some of the tournament’s hospitality staffers got off early on Sunday, allowing them a chance to glimpse the Champion Golfer of the Year. A half-dozen young women in black pants, white shirts and gray aprons found a seat on the putting green railing, straining their necks to see over the crowd. To their left, the R&A balcony was packed. Across the street people stood on rooftops and peered through windows. They were ready.
This is where you needed to be to see McIlroy win his fifth major title and second Claret Jug, end world hunger and whip the little town of St. Andrews into a frenzy that would last well into the morning. Or so they thought.
“Clearly he’s got some nerves going here,” said one spectator, after McIlroy missed a short birdie try on 3. He remained tied for the lead with Hovland.
Three years ago, when McIlroy was the local favorite at the Open at Royal Portrush, he quadruple-bogeyed the first hole. He said he was so nervous when he teed his ball up his hand was trembling. “It came so rapidly,” he said at the time.
On Sunday, he didn’t mention his nerves. He said he tried to stay as patient as possible and hit good putts. But none of them fell.
McIlroy was one under on the front and made the turn leading by three, but Smith, playing in the pairing ahead, opened his back nine with birdies on 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, with the fifth of those giving him the outright lead. Smith, one of the best putters on Tour, couldn’t miss. McIlroy couldn’t buy a putt.
An uneasiness for McIlroy fans set in around the Road Hole, the difficult par-4 17th. Smith led McIlroy, who birdied the 10th, by one, but Smith left himself a short-sided pitch over the Road Hole bunker. It was a difficult up and down, even by Tour-pro standards. Smith elected to putt around the bunker and left himself 10 feet to save par and keep his lead, and he drained it.
McIlroy had a chance to steal a birdie on 17, but he missed his 15-footer two inches to the left. After Smith birdied the short 18th — which was no surprise — McIlroy needed an eagle to force a playoff.
Young had just jarred a deuce playing alongside Smith. It was possible.
There are few scenes that compare to the 72nd hole of an Open. The crowd floods the fairway. The massive grandstands surround the green. In St. Andrews, it’s even better. The course is in town, and the shops and steeples and rooftops make it even grander.
But McIlroy didn’t envision this ending during all those dreamy mornings he woke up to the world’s most iconic course outside his window.
After making seven straight pars, he chipped it into the slope on 18 and it released well past the hole. He missed the birdie putt, too. Par.
Kids lined the catwalk over the fan entrance, trying to get a high-five or acknowledgment from McIlroy as he walked to the scoring tent. One man yelled, “Thank you, Rory! Well done! Thank you!” McIlroy paid him no attention.
Then he started the media rounds. As McIlroy walked up stairs to do TV interviews, Smith walked by below him with a small entourage en route to the 18th green for the winner’s ceremony. Microphones crackled in the background. Then McIlroy met with the press.
“It’s been a good week overall,” he said, as the R&A introduced its newest Champion Golfer of the Year in the background. “I can’t be too despondent because of how this year’s went and this year’s going. I’m playing some of the best golf I’ve played in a long time. So it’s just a matter of keep knocking on the door, and eventually one will open.”
Smith walked off the 18th green reading the names on the Claret Jug as McIlroy answered his final interview question. He was poised in front of the media, then he was able to let his guard down.
I’m only human. I’m not a robot.
McIlroy thanked reporters and departed. He vanished behind the press area for a minute before reappearing to grab a seat in the back of one of the golf carts that bus players back and forth. His wife, Erica, sat next to him.
McIlroy took his hat off and ran his hand through his hair. A few seconds felt like an eternity. This was his Open to win. He buried his head in his arm and caved into his wife’s shoulder. The cart sped off and disappeared into the night.