HOILACK, England – Rory McIlroy leaned back, puffed out his cheeks and looked angry as his putt flew past the hole.
It was just after 5pm (GMT) on Sunday the 18th hole, the 72nd McIlroy Open of the year at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, but the spectacle has played out countless times over the past four days.
He scored rounds of 71, 70, 69 and 68 to finish tied for sixth with Emiliano Grillo. There were moments of brilliance, catastrophe, false dawns, smiles and smiles.
In other words, it was a major McIlroy performance that the sports world was accustomed to.
But until Sunday, as American Brian Harman pulled off a six-shot victory to claim his first win, McIlroy’s love lingered.
He’s magnetic to these shores, and that’s been evident since he touched down in Hoylake at the start of the week.
McIlroy arrived at Royal Liverpool FC with a spring in his step on Monday, the day after he lifted the Scottish Open Cup and won in Scotland for the first time. As he walked toward the Players Club, it didn’t take long for the fans to notice him, and soon the shouts of ‘Rory’ died down from the younger generation, desperate for him to sign something.
There was a practice round in the afternoon with Shane Lowry, winner of the 2019 Open Championship, and Padraig Harrington, two-time winner of this major. The trio were hilarious, with Lowry responding to one asking if they had tee time with, “We’ve got four claret jugs here, lads.”
Harrington remarked afterwards: “Rory has some advantage in that he can get himself into some trouble”. “He always has the advantage in driving and will clearly hit home runs from the tee as he does every week.
“But I don’t know if it is this golf course that gives him such an incredible advantage.”
Shortly after 7am (GMT) on Tuesday, with adverse weather forecast for later in the day, McIlroy was scheduled to start another practice run with Lowry on the first pole. News travels quickly at Liverpool FC and word soon spreads that he has instead chosen to start third.
When McIlrory moves, a crowd follows, and if you don’t follow his group and venture elsewhere, you might be forgiven for thinking the course was cleared. Everyone else was following McIlroy, eager to get a glimpse of the golfing star and flag-bearer.
The 34-year-old wanted to keep a low profile, but that just wasn’t possible. He canceled his press conference on Tuesday — as he did before the US Open in June.
His tour with Laurie was a mixed bag; Some great hits, a few missed hits but the spring in his step remained. He was lively.
A crowd of a few hundred at 7 am had grown to four figures before McIlroy and Lowry reached the 18th. But as the weather turned for the worse, their tour ended and the day came to an end.
He was back on the course Wednesday morning, under the Hoylake sun, wearing his Nike backwards cap. Spring in its step was still there. He did not leave the Players Club until about 12.45pm, with his caddy, Harry Diamond, waiting for him on the green.
McIlroy got mixed results playing out of bunkers, but he soon headed off to another training run. This time he played with Tommy Fleetwood, Victor Hovland and Terrell Hatton. As the afternoon sun, teamed with the gentle breeze, baked the Liverpool royals, the next four balls looked bigger than any crowd at the June US Open at Los Angeles Country Club.
As they stood on the 18th tee, McIlroy collided with an iron and driver, looking to avoid the inside out-of-bounds down the right.
The grandstand rose to their feet, chanting his name, and McIlroy responded by tossing the two balls into the crowd before tipping them off and disappearing into Thursday afternoon.
Partnered with Spaniard John Rahm and England’s Justin Rose, the exhibition that followed McIlroy’s first round on Thursday was always the biggest of the day. When the Northern Irishman stepped out onto the first tee box just before 3pm, the runway erupted.
It was a scene of hope. I hope this is the major win he’s been looking for since 2014, getting increasingly and agonizingly close in recent years, including 2022 at St Andrews and last month in Los Angeles. I hope the fans in attendance, feverish in their admiration for McIlroy, picked the right day to come and watch.
As he paced back to the second hole, the grandstand, which had been jammed to the rafters just 15 minutes earlier, emptied. They joined the show and followed it for five and a half hours.
The second round birdie started his run, but as is so often the case with McIlroy, it wasn’t a straight afternoon. When it looked as if the piece was between his teeth, a deflected shot or a missed throw would follow.
Shouts: “Come on, Rory!” He followed him all over Liverpool FC, but also groaned when he putt the putt into the hole and stayed out.
By the time he got to the 14th hole, he was par 2. But then he pared a long putt for birdie. There was no celebration or pumping of the chest. Instead, he breathed a sigh of relief and acknowledged the fair.
He birdied the next and stayed even until the last hole, producing a piece of magic that those who followed him in the afternoon were desperate to see.
Failing to get out of the dugout on the first attempt, he stood on one leg and rested his knee on the ground, the stand silent in anticipation.
Swinging, the ball popped and rolled to within 10 feet of the pin. He dug out the shell, and the silent gallery exploded in unison. The rollercoaster was over, and this time he pumped his chest.
That liveliness continued into Friday morning, when he was, once again, a magnet for the exhibition. A small bird first greeted a seismic roar. But it quickly dissipated as he fought back to 1 under the round.
It was a windy day, a day of missed blows, and sometimes frustration. On the fifth hole, a rough par 5, he had to tell the fans and the media to back off and stop walking. The tee bombed him, an offbeat drive, the fairway split and a birdie followed.
Another flashpoint came up on the 12th hole, as he had a short putt for birdie and needed to get away from the ball. The show was told to stop moving. McIlroy missed the putt before walking off, shaking his head.
There was a smile etched on his face, but it was a smile of anger, not of joy. His followers, the largest in the course, stayed with him to the end. They were paid off when, finally, he made a short putt on 18 for birdie.
By this point, McIlroy was nine shots behind the lead. Most importantly, though, he made the cut and felt optimistic about Harman’s pursuit.
“Right now it’s not out of my hands, but at the same time, I think if I can get to 3, 4, 5 below par on Sunday, I’ll have a really good shot,” he said.
Ram, his playing partner for the first two days, showed what was possible on Saturday, hitting an 8-under 63 to score his lowest ever innings in a major championship, spurring himself into contention. The conditions, which were to be treacherous, were almost perfect. There was a bit of wind and only the odd shower to deal with. The players wore short sleeves.
McIlroy Birded three of his first five holes, and while he was conservative off the tee, often taking the iron lead, he was aggressive off the fairway. Those early shots were dialed at the screws.
Thursday’s hopeful reached new heights within the first hour of his third outing. If the Ram could go down, McIlroy was about to go down. But it was a very overwhelming familiar story.
His bat, often his downfall, failed to become listless, and with each error his energy and exhibition were depleted. The erupting moments from the crowd now became quiet waves of applause. An onlooker jokingly mocked McIlroy as he pulled a driving iron into the tenth tee box.
They knew there would be no charge to top the leaderboard. He had 32 strikeouts on Saturday, missing all middle-range hitters to spoil the Birds’ chances. He got 0.24 strokes scoring 56th this week. He was equally mean around the greens, relying on his driver and the irons to keep him in it.
By late Saturday afternoon, and with his chances of competing almost Sunday, the fair began to wind down. They went to watch local hero Tommy Fleetwood instead.
Just as he did on Tuesday, McIlroy did not speak to the media after completing his third run. Is the person who has had to do all the talking for the past year tired of being heard? You can’t blame him if that’s the case.
McIlroy was here to win, not to talk. The only issue was that his golf didn’t have much to say.
Smile returned at noon on Sunday. When he walked over to the first one, he was perky and couldn’t contain his smile. The gallery, which was hidden by a sea of awnings, turned around for it again.
And as he did on Saturday, he birdied three of the first five holes. But did anyone really think they could challenge Harman? The noise, which reverberated around Royal Liverpool when every blow landed, suggests that they have done so.
One young man, who had waited several hours to catch a glimpse of his idol in the fifth box, definitely thought he could. Telling him what happened on several occasions in major corporations over the past nine years would have been tough.
As McIlroy made his way down the 15th, fresh from making a birdie in the former hole, someone in the fair shouted, “This is your house, Rory!”. It just wasn’t. It was in 2014, but in 2023, it belongs to Harman.
By the time he reached the 72nd hole, there was no crowning moment. Everyone knows that. And shortly after 5.10pm (GMT), he sank into a par to finish his best run of the week, acknowledged the crowd one last time and went on to hand in his scorecard.
After his run on Sunday, McIlroy sounded optimistic about entering his 10th year without winning a major championship, noting that there is still a lot to play before 2023 is out.
“I just can’t sit here and be so frustrated,” said McIlroy, who has finished in the top 10 seven times in his last eight majors. “If you think about my performance in the majors between 2016 and 2019, (his game) is much better than that.
“I’m not thinking[of going into his 10th year without a big win]that way. I’m thinking about trying to go and win a fourth FedEx Cup here in two weeks, try to win the fifth race to Dubai, go win a fifth Ryder Cup. I’m just looking forward.”
When he left the mixed zone and walked into the Players Club one last time, there were still shouts of “Rory Ladd.” He will have lost count of the number of times he’s heard the phrase since arriving at Royal Liverpool on Monday.
But there is one thing the show has to be reminded of with McIlroy…
It is hope that kills you.
(Top photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
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