Rory McIlroy rues ‘lost opportunity’ at British Open

Northern Irish man finishes joint fourth after horrendous first round at Royal Birkdale

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy chips from the rough on the 18th during day four of the British Open  at Royal Birkdale Golf Club. Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA Wire

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy chips from the rough on the 18th during day four of the British Open at Royal Birkdale Golf Club. Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA Wire

 

Finally, a flicker of light. Perhaps even more than that for Rory McIlroy, who walked off the 18th with a long lingering – wistful? – look at the giant yellow leaderboard here at Royal Birkdale.

At times during this 146th edition of the Open championship, the Northern Irishman conjured up some of the old magic that brought multiple majors and for spells had him installed as the world number one. At other times there were more mundane offerings, indicative of an injury-disrupted season that has had its fair share of frustration.

Yet, there was more good than bad here, more hope than despair. “It was a step in the right direction, I guess,” he remarked after posting a final round 67 for 275 which left him tantalisingly in tied-fourth, before adding: “It’s a lost opportunity.”

In truth, McIlroy’s horrendous start in Thursday’s first round proved to be his Achilles’ heel, a run – five over in his opening six holes – that effectively halted his gallop before it ever got the chance to get going. In fairness, there was much to admire about how he recovered and, after rolling in a birdie putt on the ninth hole of his final round to get within four shots of the lead, even got into the fringes of contention.

“I wish I could have had that start back, obviously. But these things happen and I’m just proud of how I held it together and battled,” he admitted. And battle he did, providing enough glimpses in this championship that his game is sharpening and the rustiness disappearing and that the machine is ticking over ready at any time to fire on all cylinders.

Ultimate damage

On this day, it was not to be, the ultimate damage of the final round another self-inflicted wound after a wickedly hooked drive on the Par 5 15th flew left and further left before burying itself in a gorse bush never to be found. As it was, McIlroy made four with his provisional ball (for a bogey six) which only underscored a missed opportunity on the hole. His eagle three on the 17th hole provided a reminder of what wizardry lies beneath that Nike cap.

For much of the front nine of the final round, McIlroy just couldn’t catch fire. He ran up eight pars, some of them the scrambling kind, in a row before finally rolling in a 10 footer for birdie on the ninth. At that point, it wasn’t Jordan Spieth’s or Matt Kuchar’s name he focused in on, it was that of Li Haotong who had claimed the clubhouse lead on six-under, after a final round 63.

That was the target. “I felt with the two par-5s coming up, I thought I had a chance to post a number, and at least scare them a little bit . . . I wanted to get level with him, or at least level with him if not beat him, get in the clubhouse at 6 or 7-under. I didn’t quite get there.”

But that bogey on the 15th effectively ruined those aspirations, that chase . . . and, as it happened, events in the last pairing would ultimately prove to be the more genuine target.

After missed cuts in the Irish Open and the Scottish Open, McIlroy – it would seem – has turned a corner here at Birkdale as he moves forward to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the US PGA championship in the coming weeks.

Better shape

“I mean the PGA is only three weeks away. So I’m happy that’s coming quite quickly on the back of this. The game is in much better shape than it was heading into this week. It’s hard whenever you feel like you’ve had a chance to win a major and you’re not quite there, so it’s disappointing. But at the same time I have to take the positives, and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks,” said McIlroy.

The emotions flicked one way and another after this latest championship, another Major gone without his name engraved on the trophy. It’s three years since he lifted his fourth career major, the 2014 US PGA.

Too long? “Geez, one year, one major [without winning] feels like too long. But these things happen. You look at Jack Nicklaus, he went through a stretch where he didn’t win a major in three years. I’m not comparing myself to Jack. It’s hard to win them. It’s very hard. It’s the reason especially in this generation, excluding Tiger, no one’s got above five. So it’s tough to win them.

“We have 20 or 30-year window of where we can. And I got off to a great start in my career. But, as I said, I’ve still got 15, 20 more years to add to that tally. But, yeah, look, I feel like three years has been too long. But at the same time I’m not going to rush it, I’m not going to stay impatient. I’m going to play my game. And hopefully my chance arrives at some point and I’m able to take it,” added McIlroy.

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