ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – When Rory McIlroy teed off Sunday afternoon at the Old Course under mercifully grey skies, his world was filled with promise, purpose and more pressure than most could ever fathom.
A nervous hush hung low over the game’s most iconic amphitheater as the United Kingdom’s favorite son set out for what many had dubbed a pivotal final round at the 150th Open. The raucous cheers that had sent him off late Saturday had turned to a collective cautiousness.
Third-round leader Rory, their Rory, was bound for greatness – surely – but he’d been here before. He’d failed before. Call it a wary optimism: hope for the best, prepare for something else.
On an uncharacteristically calm day that left the Old Course defenseless and the Valley of Sin feeling more like the Swale of Questionable Choices, McIlroy made par on each of his first four holes in what was, by any account, an uninspired start.
The quiet grew.
But he was still in command – and even extended his lead to two shots with a birdie at the fifth – and remained atop the big yellow leaderboard with another birdie at the 10th hole.
Nothing went as planned after that.
Playing in the group ahead of McIlroy, Cameron Smith birdied five consecutive holes starting at No. 10, tying McIlroy's lead at the 13th hole and pulling ahead at No. 14.
McIlroy spoke at length in the Saturday twilight about his desire to remain inside his competitive cocoon and the need to stay tucked away from the outside noise. This went beyond his dogged attempts to end a major drought that now stretches back eight years. Earlier in the week, McIlroy had called an Open at St. Andrews the “holy grail,” and as much as he would have rather clung to the cliched notion of process, he knew that wasn’t an option.
“The Open at St. Andrews, it's what dreams are made of,” he allowed following the third round.
As Saturday’s reception proved, McIlroy was playing for more than just himself. His Northern Irish roots aside, this was his Open to win, and with every step, the galleries reminded him of that.
There was also his status as the game’s undisputed front-man in the expanding divide between the established tours and organizations and the startup LIV Golf league. For some, Sunday’s outcome was the stuff of good vs. evil, with McIlroy playing the role of the PGA Tour's Great Hope.
It was more context than McIlroy could, or would ever, admit, but he forged ahead. He left a lengthy birdie attempt one roll short at No. 13 and failed to birdie the par-5 14th hole, which at 614 yards yet on the fiery links turf had been easy work the first three days.
By the time he’d reached the 15th tee, the crowd was on the verge of an anxiety attack.
“Yesterday was an incredible atmosphere out there; I was probably four or five groups from Rory, but I felt like everyone was cheering for Rory,” Adam Scott observed. “Today it was very quiet for the longest time, and it was a very calm atmosphere today. I don't know what's going on out there, to be honest, but it was very different yesterday.”
What was happening is that McIlroy had lost momentum and the lead. He two-putted from 42 feet at the 15th hole for par, wasn’t any better at No. 16 with a tugged wedge to 40 feet and another par, and by the time he stepped to the 17th tee, the masses had turned to a full-throated panic.
With the weight of the golf world on his shoulders and the pressure of delivering the ultimate feel-good story, a story the game needed to keep it from being overwhelmed by distractions, McIlroy retreated into his cocoon. He was patient and at peace. But then again, he’s not made of wires and microchips, even if his game at its best feels very much machine-like.
If the cocoon on the golf course sheltered him from expectations, both large and small, off the course it was a bit more of a challenge. McIlroy’s room in the Rusacks Hotel overlooks the Old Course’s first and 18th holes, and the scene, and everything it entails, is impossible to ignore.
“My hotel room is directly opposite the big yellow board on 18 there right of the first, and every time I go out, I'm trying to envision ‘McIlroy’ as the top name on that leaderboard,” he admitted Sunday following the final round.
In the quiet moments when he was alone with his thoughts. McIlroy allowed himself to imagine his name being etched into the claret jug for the second time, first at the Home of Golf. But when his 15-foot birdie putt trundled just past the hole at No. 17 and his chip for eagle bounded by the flag at the 18th, those images faded into the grey skies alongside the groans from the gallery.
“At the start of the day, ['McIlroy'] was at the top of the board, but at the start of tomorrow, it won't be,” McIlroy smiled ruefully. “Of course, you've got to let yourself dream. You've got to let yourself think about it and what it would be like, but once I was on the golf course, it was just task at hand and trying to play the best golf I possibly could.”
His best golf wasn’t enough on Sunday. He didn’t give himself enough chances or capitalize on the opportunities he had.
The line between contending and winning never seemed so fine.
“I wish that I had hit it a little closer with some approach shots, and I wish I'd have holed a couple more putts,” he said. “The putter just went a little cold today compared to the last three days.”
McIlroy was on the first tee Friday preparing to start his second round as Tiger Woods was putting the finishing touches on a 9-over-par week on the adjacent 18th hole. The two traded glances, with McIlroy tipping his cap, and McIlroy lamented afterward that he hopes this St. Andrews Open isn’t Woods’ last. Woods deserves better, McIlroy contended.
As McIlroy put the finishing touches on his closing 70, it was hard not to conclude that he also deserved better. He’d not played well enough to win The Open, and he was quick to give full credit to Smith, but there was an emptiness that always comes with unfulfilled expectations.
This was Rory’s Open, his moment to end the major drought and accomplish golf's “holy grail” at St. Andrews.
As he waited to play his third shot on the 72nd hole, McIlroy turned his empty gaze from the links turf to his room in the Rusacks Hotel. He was looking for his wife, Erica, and daughter, Poppy. Under the game’s most intense spotlight – the final hole of a major championship that had been his to win – he turned away from the stunned masses and the wild expectations, and toward his cocoon and a place where he can accept both disappointment and perspective.