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Ciarán Murphy: Rory McIlroy’s US Open failure a stark reminder of sport’s unforgiving nature

The more Race To Dubai and more FedEx Cups he wins, the bigger the loser he becomes in some people’s eyes

Rory McIlroy is consoled by his caddie Harry Diamond after making a bogey on the 18th hole during the final round of the US Open. Photograph: Sean M Haffey/Getty Images

I can’t remember a feeling like the one I had on Sunday night, watching Rory McIlroy lose the US Open. I’m a supporter of a few teams — Manchester United, the Galway footballers and hurlers, the Irish rugby team and soccer team; these are teams to which I’ve had a long-term emotional connection.

I’ve always rooted for McIlroy. That’s not a unanimous feeling on this island, and I would be fairly blasé at this stage about trying to convince people who think otherwise about him. At this juncture, you’ve made your mind up. But rooting for someone is nowhere near as strong an emotion as the sort of support that has the potential to ruin your weekend, or your week, or your month.

I felt bad for him when he lost the Open to Cameron Smith at St Andrews two years ago. He played solid golf, the other guy played brilliant golf, and he lost. It was set up for him to win the 150th Open, at the home of golf, and some other guy came in and drank his milkshake. He did what we’d been pleading for him to do. No big mistakes. Plot your way around. He did all that and it cost him the Open.

But it was nothing compared to what we watched last Sunday night. It was a particularly cruel example of the sheer, cut-throat brutality of sport. McIlroy had made 496 putts from 496 attempts inside 3ft on the PGA Tour this season, until the 16th green on the Sunday of the US Open.


And then a miss from 3ft 9in on the 18th green half an hour after that which would have forced a playoff. He choked and he had only himself to blame. He lost and it was all his own fault.

Sport sometimes shields the losers. We like to think of it as a straight battle, with only two outcomes. You win, and you’re a champion; you don’t and you’re a chump. But how often do we say in the immediate aftermath of a game that there was no shame in this defeat. They died with their boots on.

Galway's Shane Walsh dejected after the All-Ireland football final in 2022 when Kerry prevailed. Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Shane Walsh has only ever played in one All-Ireland senior football final. He scored eight points, including a collection of four points from play which only a handful of players in the last 20 years could dream of putting up. He played like Rudolf Nureyev in a pair of Adidas. He lost the game. He might never play in another one. But are you seriously telling me he felt as bad that evening as McIlroy did last Sunday night?

After all the rigmarole and all the preamble, we are getting down to winning time in the GAA. Every game from this weekend on will have a winner and a loser. The winner stays on, the loser goes home. It’s that binary again. But for the 11 teams that end up leaving the All-Ireland senior football championship in the next month, and the five that will lose in the hurling championship, there might be 16 different ways of losing.

We will say that Limerick and Dublin have won enough, that while any defeat from here on might hurt, they already have their medals. But Limerick have a shot at history, one that may never come around again — five All-Ireland titles in a row. Lose, and the Dubs could be waving goodbye to a few of their greatest players. It will feel like a sporting tragedy, even for those teams.

Ruby Walsh once told us that he couldn’t ever handle being a golf pro because even Tiger, the greatest of all time, lost far, far more tournaments than he won. Roger Federer gave a commencement speech at Dartmouth College last week, where he said he played 1,526 singles matches in his career. He won almost 80 per cent of those matches, but he won only 54 per cent of the points in those matches. He won 11 and lost nine of every 20 points he ever played. Losing is part of sport — the majority of it, for most of us.

McIlroy has his Majors, but they’re scant consolation to him now. He is 100 times the golfer Doug Sanders was, and 10 thousand times the golfer Jean Van De Velde was, but that’s the company he is keeping now. The more Race To Dubai titles, the more FedEx Cups he wins, the bigger the loser he becomes.

Lee Keegan played in seven All-Irelands and didn’t win any of them. In one framing, he and his team-mates are the biggest bunch of losers in the GAA’s history. But Mayo haven’t won an All-Ireland since 1951. Do you think the lads in 2017 were the biggest disappointment the county’s ever seen? They went through the entire 1970s without even winning a Connacht title. The more games that Mayo team won, the bigger the loser they became.

Galway have only played in one All-Ireland final in 23 years, but Mayo are the punchbag. Patrick Horgan hit a wonder score to put Cork a point up in the last minute of the 2013 All-Ireland hurling final, but he might end his career without a Celtic Cross, so he couldn’t get it done. That’s not fair. It’s brutal. It’s also sport. And McIlroy’s despair is part of the entire spectacle, even if we’d all have preferred to look away.