ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Deep along the back nine of the British Open on Sunday, around the time that word of Cameron Smith’s birdie streak began to seep through the gallery, the spectators began to seem unsure.
They had come to the Old Course to revel alongside Rory McIlroy with all manner of commotion, and, for a while, revel they did: pep talks and chants, squeals and roars, even, sometimes, when he missed a putt.
Then they became a chorus of shellshocked eulogists, crafting a slow-in-the-making mournful soundtrack for one of golf’s more wrenching runs.
Alongside the tee box at the road hole, the par-4 17th, a woman clenched her teeth before McIlroy swung.
“Come on, Rory!” a man screamed as the ball gained altitude.
“You can do it, Rory!” another hollered.
“Birdie, eagle!” a third man recommended.
It was not that McIlroy, who finished eighth or better at all four majors in 2022, played a round rife with disaster — his Sunday scorecard showed a two-under-par 70 and no bogeys. But his outing was marked by one squandered opportunity after the next, putts “where I couldn’t just trust myself to start it inside the hole,” and a suspended ability to keep pace.
On Saturday, when he had assembled a masterful 66 to take a share of the lead into the final round, he had sometimes appeared more like a sorcerer than a player, with a stirring eagle from the sand on No. 10 and five birdies. On Sunday, he recorded birdies only twice, his putter not the weapon it was a day earlier.
“I felt like I didn’t do much wrong today, but I didn’t do much right either,” McIlroy said after he finished third in the Open, behind Smith and Cameron Young. It’s just one of those days where I played a really controlled round of golf. I did what I felt like I needed to just apart from capitalizing on the easier holes around the turn, 9, 12, 14. If I had made the birdies there from good positions, it probably would have been a different story.”
Indeed, all else in this tournament staying the same, he would have won.
There were few figures in the 156-man field of the 150th Open who had stirred the St. Andrews crowd quite like McIlroy, a son of Northern Ireland who had won the Open at Royal Liverpool in 2014. McIlroy, who missed the 2015 tournament at St. Andrews because of an injury, had fared well on the Old Course in the past, placing third in the 2010 Open.
Still, he arrived this time mired in a particularly elite brand of misery, with top-10 finishes — but not a single victory — in 16 of the 29 major tournaments in which he competed after winning at Royal Liverpool. He sensed that he was playing his best golf in some time, and thought that, perhaps, he could solve one of golf’s most beguiling and challenging courses.
So at 2:50 pm local time on Sunday, when he and Viktor Hovland started Game No. 42 of the day, the working assumption for plenty of people around St. Andrews was that one of them would hoist the freshly engraved claret jug. The notion that they would be the only men in the tournament’s top ranks to score 70 or worse on Sunday seemed distant, although the crowd seemed to treat Hovland as more of an afterthought than a contender.
But the arithmetic was steering McIlroy straight towards a 70 after nine holes.
He did not get worse after that. He did not get better, either, the Old Course’s pins making something of a ritual of eluding his putts.
It was impossible, of course, for Hovland’s troubles, which accumulated to a 74 for Sunday, to escape McIlroy’s notice. He could gather only so much, though, about the swelling threat in the pairing just ahead, where Young, playing alongside Smith, was also on the march, gaining seven shots towards his eventual runner-up finish. Smith was even more glimmering, picking up eight strokes during the final round, six of them on the back nine.
“I was just doing my own thing,” McIlroy said. It was working well until I needed to respond to what Cam was doing out there. Coming down on 14, I knew that at that point Cam had birdied to go to 19 and I was at 18, so I knew that I needed to respond. I just couldn’t find the shots or the putts to do that.”
But to McIlroy’s mind, it still ranked among his best showings in majors in recent years, even as he confessed to having categorized this year’s Open as “one that I feel like I let slip away.”
“I’ve been close and I keep knocking on the door,” said McIlroy, whose next tournament is expected to be one in Memphis in mid-August. “I can’t get too down on myself because the game is there. It’s just a matter of staying patient.”
His drought notwithstanding, there may be no player in professional golf these days thought to have so much unrealized promise. Gary Player, who won three Opens, recently called McIlroy “the most talented golfer in the world today,” and Smith spent part of his post-round news conference hailing McIlroy as “probably the most consistent player out here.”
On Sunday, though, consistency proved exactly the problem.
And those crowds?
“They were a lot louder in the beginning compared to the end,” Hovland said, “that’s for sure.”