Rory McIlroy is many things; an incredible golfer, a four-time major champion, a husband, a father. He is also, apparently, a masochist.
After missing yet another birdie opportunity on the final hole of his third round yesterday – McIlroy’s seventh birdie miss from inside 17 feet – the Northern Irishman marched off the green, over the footbridge that connects the 18th at Hoylake with the scorer’s hut, straight past the mixed zone, declining all interviews, signed for a two-under-par 69, and then marched straight to the putting green in front of the clubhouse.
One hopes he managed to exorcise his demons because McIlroy is going to need his putter to be red-hot if he is to stand any chance of winning this Open and prevent his ‘barren’ spell in majors extending into a second decade.
It feels like a very tall order. This 69, which left McIlroy -3 for the tournament, was not a complete disaster. If the wheels totally fall off Brian Harman’s bid for glory, and they would need to for anyone else to stand a chance, McIlroy is still just about in with a shout. He is still only four shots off second place. But this round could and should have been so much better.
As so often where McIlroy is concerned, it all began so well. Even his trousers were on fire with one spectator complimenting his “sexy pink pants”. Walking over that same footbridge on his way to the first tee, he had experienced the first taste of that pressure which is measured out to McIlroy more than any other golfer now that Tiger Woods has semi-retired.
An almost fervent desperation. “Come on, Rory!” “You can do it, Rory!” “You’re going to make me a rich man today, Rory!” McIlroy gave the last fan a slightly pained look. But if he was feeling nervous, he didn’t show it in what was a brilliant start. A textbook booming drive down the middle followed by a glorious approach to 10ft and an opening birdie.
And he didn’t stop there. McIlroy could hardly have played the front nine any better – tee to green at least. Generally eschewing driver, he hit the ball straight off every tee, attacked every pin and gave himself a look at pretty much every hole. The problem, as so often where McIlroy is concerned, is that his putter deserted him just when he needed it most.
McIlroy managed to birdie the third to move to -4, which at one stage was just four shots off the lead with Harman bogeying two of his first four holes. But he also missed very makeable birdie putts on two, four, eight and nine, plus a more difficult eagle putt on five.
The cumulative effect of failing to capitalize on his excellent ball-striking appeared to sap his spirits, and the back nine proved to be more of a battle. He missed his first green in regulation on 10, playing his approach not far from a dead mouse which happened to be lying in the long grass.
Perhaps leader Brian ‘the butcher’ Harman had been out hunting overnight on Friday and left the Northern Irishman a gift. An excellent up-and-down there saved par, and he managed to save par again on 11 after a poor first putt. But he was not so lucky a third time, missing the fairway left, the green right, and then failing to get up and down to move back to -3.
He played the rest of the round in level par but those missed putts on 17 – a tricky putt with a lot of break – and 18 clearly sent him over the edge. He couldn’t even blame the conditions, which were about as benign as they’ve been here all week.
Perhaps that was the problem. McIlroy won the Scottish Open last weekend in what were atrocious conditions, while Harman fell apart. With Hoylake not baring his teeth, the birdies were there for the taking and McIlroy could not take them. There were shades of his final round last year when he finished in a tie for third with a two-under par final round at St Andrews, which left him two shots behind Cameron Smith went birdie ballistic with an eight-under par round.
Rather incredibly, McIlroy’s last two weekend rounds at the Open have seen him hit 33 out of 36 greens in regulation but only make a total of five birdies.
So that major drought looks set to extend into a second decade. The pressure will continue to rise, with each passing year. One can only feel for him. McIlroy is held to a higher standard than almost any other golfer. He has now finished in the top 10 in half of the majors he has played since winning his fourth at the 2014 US PGA Championship.
Unless he can do something special, it looks set to be another today. As he hit the practice putting green at Hoylake last night he would have felt more frustrated than anyone.
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