Rory McIlroy’s dreams of an Irish Open drowned in the River Liffey
By Sunday afternoon, all roads were leading to another Rory McIlroy victory at the K Club.
McIlroy had started his Irish Open week a bit rusty — he hadn’t hit many balls entering the week, enjoying some time off and rehabbing a back injury — but carved out a first-round 69. He made five birdies but missed more than half his fairways off the tee, and even bogeyed a par-5. There was plenty of room for improvement.
Not much came on Friday, when McIlroy carded a rather ho-hum 70. But he did eagle the par-5 16th, which got the good vibes flowing. That hole is home to one of McIlroy’s most memorable shots on the DP World Tour, a towering wood into the green, setting up an easy birdie that helped push him to victory at this exact course in 2016.
Whenever he plays at the K Club, reporters ask him about that shot, that hole, that win. When he eagled it Friday, those questions came out. And when he shot the round of the day Saturday, a 7-birdie 66, similar questions arose once again.
How much can you lean on that  win tomorrow in contention?
“It’s hard to try to win your own National Open and try to get over the line,” McIlroy said Saturday afternoon. “It’s hard. It’s hard to do. I was in fortunate enough to do it a few years ago here and having those memories is going to be nice, and also having the support of the crowd out there as well is going to be incredibly helpful tomorrow.”
McIlroy began Sunday two shots back of the lead, but importantly from within the final group. The others he was playing with — Hurly Long and Jordan Smith — were both being asked about what it would be like to play with McIlroy in front of his home crowd. That’s what was brewing at the resort in Ireland, just outside of Dublin. All roads were leading to a raucous McIlroy romp.
And the path felt even more obvious when he birdied two of the first four holes of the final round. McIlroy sat through a 90-minute rain delay but got up and down from a bunker to reach 13 under and, finally, a share of the lead. But a watery double bogey on the 7th switched him back into neutral. He’d play holes 8 through 15 in level par as a surprising Swede — Vincent Norrman — raced out ahead of everyone into the clubhouse lead with a 65. When asked how he made a charge with five birdies on his back nine, Norrman was pretty jovial:
“Caught a rain delay, had a coffee and then went out and flushed it.”
Fair enough. Norrman set the pace at 14 under, which meant that McIlroy would have to play the final three holes in three under par. Ironically, it’s exactly how he won that Irish Open back in 2016. And through one shot on that par-5 16th, McIlroy had done exactly what he needed to do. He ripped a driver 324 yards into the fairway, leaving himself 267 in to the hole. That’s when things got weird.
McIlroy flared his second shot out to the right. It finished short of the hole and 20 yards right. On any other hole this may have been fine, and a miss like that could even lead to an up-and-down birdie, but at worst a par. Except 20 yards short and right of the hole put his ball directly into the River Liffey, which meanders through the Irish countryside all the way into Dublin and connects to the Irish Sea. The river might be 15 yards right at that fateful spot but McIlroy found it and would have to drop.
Perhaps the weirdest moment came next, when McIlroy launched his fourth shot into the Liffey as well. This one went long of the hole and out to the right, just at the base of a swampy bank. He had nothing more than a short iron or wedge in his hands, but it was his fourth water ball of the day.
It didn’t get any better when his sixth shot — this one from the nearest point of relief (which was on the other side of the river) — flew the green into a greenside bunker. He managed to get up and down from the sand for a crippling triple-bogey 8. From 11 under and a chance at glory to eight under and outside the top 20. Decidedly un-Rory-like.
When he tapped in for a finishing birdie on the 18th hole, it was a bit of a cyclical end to McIlroy’s week. He entered it looking for form and to shake off a bit of the rust. He did both of those things superbly, though it all ended with a frustrating 74 in front of some of his most avid followers. To call it mixed signals would be appropriate. McIlroy now heads out on a bit of a jet-setting few weeks with stops in London, Mykonos and Rome (in addition to this week’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth) before Ryder Cup week begins at the end of the month.