Thinking about cycling the morning after Rory McIlroy let yet another major title slip through his fingers wasn’t something I thought I’d be doing, but as I lay in bed contemplating just how he’d managed to not win, a throwaway line from an old cycling documentary flashed through my mind.
Back in the ’00s, I became obsessed with the sport. It was due in part to Lance Armstrong’s rise and the ‘cancer survivor goes on to dominate the most grueling sport on the planet’ storyline, and part because I was living in Belgium, where cycling is a religion.
Anyway, the documentary focused on Armstrong and was made before the fall from grace, and the line in question came from before he’d ever gained worldwide fame for his near-Lazarus-like return from the dead. Back in 1995, the then 23-year-old who, by his own claims, had yet to begin doping, had been part of a breakaway group that had foraged ahead on a stage in the Tour de France and for 200 kilometers, this small group had continued to distance themselves from the peloton before being whittled down to just Armstrong and Ukrainian Sergei Outschakov.
The commentators all believed Armstrong possessed the bigger kick and would take the Ukrainian in the sprint finish, but alas, Outschakov went first and despite Armstrong getting on his wheel and into the slipstream, his legs deserted him and he wasn’t able to pull out and overtake with the line approaching.
The camera then cuts to a shellshocked Armstrong sitting in a team car, being interviewed afterwards. “I was out there for 200ks,” he said, “and every 200 of them I was sure I was going to win. Every single one of them, I was sure I was going to win, and to get second, that’s devastating.”
The interviewer then attempts to appease the Texan, saying you’ll have more chances in the stages ahead, “there is,” Armstrong concedes, “but a day like today you don’t come across very often. To get in a break and get 15 or 17 minutes [ahead of the main pack]. Those days just don’t happen.”
Armstrong would later allege that it was the vastly increased performances of the likes of Outschakov in that Tour that convinced him he’d need to fight fire with fire and begin doping, but his credibility is long gone so it’s hard to know if he was actually clean or not, but it was the pained look in his eyes, the sheer disbelief that he’d been beaten, and the “every 200 of them, I was sure I was going to win” line that sent me scouring YouTube to see if I could dig up the documentary.
Because Rory McIlroy was out there for 72 holes at L.A. Country Club, and for near enough all 72 of them, I was sure he was going to win. I wrote about it on Friday morning after sitting up to 3 am on Thursday night and watching every shot.
There just seemed to be something different about him, the way he’d carried himself, the way he’d struck the ball, the way he’d plotted his way around, the way course was going to play, and the way the weather forecast suggested that he’d found himself on the favourable side of the draw. Yeah, I was sure he was going to win, and I wrote as much, acknowledging the possibility of the ‘I told you so’ messages that predictably, even as I type, are arriving thick and fast.
And this wasn’t me being a fanboy either. It wasn’t until he was a couple clear on Sunday at St. Andrews last year that I thought he was actually going to do it, I held little realistic hope for his chances at Augusta this year, even less at Oak Hill a few weeks later. But the similarities between the final round at The Old Course and the final round at L.A. Country Club are too glaring to ignore. He played the toughest stretch extremely well, but failed to take advantage of the easiest holes.
Apart from the first, which he birdied all four days, he played the sixth in -1 for the week, the eighth in -2 and the 14th in level-par, but crucially, when it mattered most on Sunday he covered the latter three in one-over.
That’s where the killer instinct was lacking, that’s where this tournament was effectively lost.
It’s hard to legislate for how well Wyndham Clark played, but with the depth of talent in the upper echelons of professional golf, there’s always going to be a Wyndham Clark. He’s not going to produce it week in, week out, but on any given week he, and dozens of others, are capable of playing to a level that McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka or Scottie Scheffler have to be close to their very best to match.
It was clear that neither Rahm, Scheffler nor Koepka had their tee-to-green ‘A games’ this week, and the same goes for the rest of the top ranked players in the world, but McIlroy had something approaching his and he didn’t get it done.
Anytime you hole a 40-footer, there’s a little bit of luck involved. Sure, you’re trying to pick the right line and right pace, but there’s a very fine line between one that goes in and one that slides inches by. In general, Rory’s long-range putting was extremely good and lady luck just evaded him, but he missed too many of the makable putts.
11 feet on three, 22 feet on four, four feet on eight, 12 feet on nine, 15 feet on 10, 19 feet on 11, 9 feet on 14, and 19 feet on 15. The eighth hole aside, none of those are putts that even top pros have a better than 50% success rate on, but you have to hole a couple of them. He didn’t, and that was the difference.
Sure, there’s another major coming up at Hoylake next month, and there’ll be 20 more in the coming five years, but there’s going to be other Wyndham Clarks who’ll stick their head above the parapet, there’s going to be sharper Rahms, Schefflers and Koepkas to deal with, and there’s going to be a new breed of graduates who’ll have come through the ranks and are hungry to dine at the top table.
Of course Rory will give himself chances, he’s too good not to. But, to paraphrase Armstrong, chances like this don’t come around too often.
For almost 72 holes I was sure he was going to win.
To get 2nd? That’s devastating.