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Agony but no choke at St Andrews for Rory McIlroy - he remains on the right track

Though the drought goes on, McIlroy’s consistency at the majors this year has been outstanding.

THIS WAS ANOTHER slow, slow slipping away; the Claret Jug disappearing from Rory McIlroy’s view like water slipping through the cracks of his fingers.

This was no grand, operatic choke. McIlroy merely fell the wrong side of golf’s margins: forever ebbing, forever thin. So perhaps it’s wrong to tug at a few of the day’s strands and mash them into a narrative, because Rory McIlroy played well at St Andrews but Cameron Smith played better.

There was a damp atmosphere to Smith’s presentation and acceptance speech, he wasn’t the fabled winner the crowd wanted to see. But the fables don’t always get it right: sometimes, the tortoise loses to the hare. Or the Hair, in Smith’s case. 

the-open-2022-day-four-st-andrews Smith kisses the Claret Jug. Source: PA

“I didn’t do much wrong today”, sighed McIlroy, “but I didn’t do much right either.” 

Maybe this is a worse kind of agony in the moment; to have a Sunday lead, make no mistakes and then lose and have nobody to blame but everybody else. Stats genius Justin Ray delivered a gut punch. “Rory McIlroy is the only player to hold the 54-hole lead at a major, hit every green in regulation in the final round and not win.” 

Kyle Porter of CBS had another: “Rory beat or tied 97.5% of golfers he faced across all four majors this year and somehow didn’t win any of them.” 

McIlroy approached this championship with the same mindset as he approached the other majors of the year, preaching control, patience, which was betrayed with a response to a question on Friday about the famous 17th hole.

“I knew four was going to be a good score. It’s [about] accepting that and sometimes and not being overly aggressive, even when you put yourself in some of these positions. I think that’s important.” 

The wonderkid has grown up.

McIlroy has played with more patience and less aggression this year, showing an ability to grind his way around golf courses he hasn’t shown often enough amid this eight-year drought.

Thus it was on Sunday at St Andrews. 

Viktor Hovland uneasily matched McIlroy’s pace for three holes before slipping on four, to give McIlroy a lead that he didn’t build on but instead seemed happy to maintain it, pay for its upkeep. He went two shots clear and everything seemed so patient, so sensible: he was tight off the tee and patient around the greens, taking a putter from outside the sixth green to roll the ball over a slope and toward the pin. His two-putts for par across the first four holes looked cannily steady as Hovland wobbled, and when he tidied calmly up for par on eight, he walked off with a two-shot lead.

This was the right game and the right pace until it wasn’t. Cameron Smith caught fire at the turn and left McIlroy’s careful husbandry in ashes. His back nine is already the stuff of Open lore: six-under, featuring five birdies in a row and the finest two-putt of his life to save par at 17. 

McIlroy, meanwhile, couldn’t find the throttle. He couldn’t find birdie on the par-five 14th, nor often enough on the driveable par-fours. The putter that kept him in competitions earlier this year went cold; he didn’t one-putt a single green, but he can’t be said to have putted terribly. No, some slid just left while others were just short; a consequence of approach shots that were good but not great, that left him with just slightly too much to do. Two birdies, 16 pars; a couple of inches here and a few feet there: it all adds up to another nine months at least on the major drought. 

Cameron Young’s closing eagle bumped him to third place in the end. 

the-open-2022-day-four-st-andrews Rory McIlroy. Source: PA

It’s another galling miss, but McIlroy did search for succour in his consistency this year in his interview on Sky. The look on his face suggested he was struggling to find it. But his consistency this year has been a marvel: top-five in three majors this year, top-10 in them all. 

“I’m only human. I’m not a robot”, said McIlroy when all was said and done at St Andrews. “Of course you think about it, and you envision it, and you want to envision it. My hotel room is directly opposite the big yellow board on 18 there and every time I go out, I’m trying to envision McIlroy as the top name on that leaderboard and how did that feel?” 

That summation carried the unmistakable influence of Bob Rotella, the renowned sports psychologist with whom McIlroy has been working.

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“I remember doing an article on anger for Golf Digest”, Rotella told the Sunday Independent last year. “In it I wrote that I wasn’t trying to produce choir boys, just champion athletes. Sometimes we want athletes to be non-human and show no emotion, which isn’t very realistic.”

It’s natural that Rotella would stress this, given one of his books is called Golf is not a Game of Perfect.

“Part of it is about not making up false narratives about having to hit everything perfectly” said Rotella last year. “Golf is about hitting the ball and getting it in the hole. Sometimes it’s winning pretty and sometimes winning ugly.”

McIlroy’s gilded adolescence meant he struggled when things weren’t perfect. He has won all of his major championships as the third-round leader and has lost other opportunities by over-exaggerating difficulty: think his opening-round at the Open at Portrush in 2019, or his walking away with shoulders slumped from the second hole at the 2018 Masters, having made birdie, not eagle, in the final group with Patrick Reed. 

Reed went on to win, McIlroy stumbled to a 74. 

He may take some time to alight on it, but this year’s majors have proven McIlroy can hang tough when things aren’t perfect, that he can grind as well as the rest of them. That might stem from working with Rotella, by accepting that perfect should never be the enemy of good. It’s helped shape the more patient game we’ve seen from him this year and perhaps, when McIlroy reflects on St Andrews, he’ll find that balance was slightly askew yesterday. 

But nobody is always perfect: golf is too random, maddening, finicky and fundamentally unfair to totally control. McIlroy has found consistency and been competitive at all four majors this year by accepting that, but he has been denied victory by the ultimate loss of control: sometimes, somebody just plays better. 

“Look”, said McIlroy. “I got beaten by a better player.” 

McIlroy is putting himself in positions at majors to ask huge questions of the field around him and there will come a week when nobody has the answers. And then, the drought will end. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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