McIlroy’s demons come back to haunt his U.S. Open hopes

John Craven

18 flag on Pinehurst No. 2 (Copyright USGA/Jason E. Miczek)

John Craven

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It was never going to be easy but Rory McIlroy will lie awake for many a night knowing it didn’t have to be that difficult either.

With five holes to play at Pinehust, the four-time Major winner was odds on to add a fifth. He’d pulled two shots clear of Bryson DeChambeau. He was playing well. One hand on the trophy. A few more good swings and soon it would be two. His best chance by a distance to finally end a decade-long Major drought.

If only McIlroy didn’t know the details.

Getting over the line after 36 failed attempts was always going to involve an exorcism but when he yanked his tee-shot left on 14, it was clear the demons of Majors past weren’t going to be easily shaken.

McIlroy kept them at bay with a gutsy up and down from the left side of the green, rolling in the sliding four and a half footer with the confidence of a man at peace with his putter. And why wouldn’t he be? He’d made over one hundred feet of putts to that point. Hell, he’d made his last 496 inside three feet. And counting…

On the par-3 15th, McIlroy pulled seven iron. With adrenaline pumping, it seemed like a lot of club, but this is a man with a patented, high hanging ball flight. Capable of kissing the clouds and stopping it on a six-pence. So why was this tee shot boring low and airmailing his landing zone, leaving an impossible up and down from the cabbage? Whatever the reason, he avoided disaster. Made bogey. Moved on to the treacherously narrow 16th one shot clear.

McIlroy puts two swings together that he would’ve paid handsomely for. Finds the middle of the green. Just the settler he needed after the previous wobble. Rolls his first putt to two and a half feet and proceeds to highlight just how meaningless statistics can be. Putt 497 from inside three feet misses. The one that mattered most. The gasps from the gallery enriching Bryson’s lungs with air.

The sides are level as McIlroy makes his way to the par-3 17th. The ghosts of Majors gone by ready to greet him on the tee. Again he pulls his tee shot left. Finds the trap. But it’s not fatal; the mouse escaping in par to the 18th tee where McIlroy’s elected three wood for the first three days and played the hole in one-under. A good omen then. The Northern Irishman’s fate still very much in his own hands.

But the devil’s in the details.

Inexplicably, McIlroy pulls driver. Sure enough, he pulls it left. Draws a horrible lie in the shite. The child must die…

He chunk and runs his approach just short of the green but executes a nonchalant chip like it’s practice, which makes what happens next worthy of A Question of Sport. Or a horror film. It’s gut wrenching. So utterly compelling. McIlroy’s ball refusing his prayers and those of so many others, candles extinguished at the sight of it slipping by the hole from three and a half feet. May as well be a million miles as far as McIlroy’s Major hopes are concerned.

I watched it fidgeting from one foot to the other two inches from the telly. My jaw on the floor. Stomach churning. Texts flying in dripping with all the empathy in the world because who among us hasn’t cacked the bags over a two foot putt?

Even for McIlroy levels of drama, this was taking the Michael. For some, it was all too much to bear. They wanted off the rollercoaster… but what sort of person gets off a rollercoaster after a thrill like that and doesn’t immediately rejoin the queue?

Look, hat tip to DeChambeau, that up and down at the last looked like a one-in-a-hundred make. He hit a winner when he needed to while McIlroy watched on sick to his stomach knowing that when push came to shove, he choked.

I don’t blame McIlroy for skipping his media duties. What could a Q&A session possibly achieve that the sight of him in the scorer’s hut couldn’t? In golf there’s no hiding place and McIlroy suffered a brutal humiliation at the hands of a game that never discriminates. We’ll eventually get our answers, don’t fret, and they’ll be much more considered and insightful than any post-round reaction could’ve been.

As for where Rory goes from here. If the foundation of his game is his driving, then the six inches between his ears is the pyrite tearing it all down. It will take a Nobel Prize worthy psychologist to exorcise those demons.

Or a priest with a cross and a prayer…

What? He’s tried everything else.

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