He hit the ball beautifully all week at the Los Angeles Country Club, leading the field in strokes gained off the tee and in greens in regulation at the 123rd U.S. Open.
But his putter let him down immensely, and it ultimately sealed his fate.
McIlroy lost 2.1 strokes to the field putting Sunday, ranking 57th of 65 players that made the cut.
He finished one stroke behind Wyndham Clark, the 2023 U.S. Open champion.
McIlroy may have snapped his nine-year major championship drought if he made just one more putt—he had plenty of opportunities. The Hollywood Hills formed the backdrop to an epic underdog story. The Holywood man was denied once more. It was impossible not to feel sympathy for McIlroy, who has done everything in this sport since August 2014 bar win another of the trophies he craves so much. If there is sporting justice, he will crash through the barrier soon enough.
For McIlroy, who fell short of Clark by a single, measly stroke, this one will sting. It is the hope that kills. At last summer’s Open Championship, McIlroy was ultimately outplayed on day four by Cameron Smith. Then, as here, the Northern Irishman’s putter fell as cold as a January morning in Reykjavik. What will hurt McIlroy upon deeper reflection is a sense of missed opportunity and, being blunt, the nondescript nature of the champion. Had McIlroy broken par even by one, he would have forced a playoff. A level par 70 left him as the runner-up.
“I’m getting closer,” said McIlroy. “The more I keep putting myself in these positions, sooner or later it’s going to happen for me. When I do finally win this next major, it’s going to be really, really sweet. I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.” This bullishness was admirable. Next stop, the Open at Royal Liverpool. McIlroy lifted the Claret Jug there in 2014.
Clark is of course worthy of immense credit. This is a golfer who in half a dozen previous major appearances had missed the cut four times. His best finish was a tie for 75th. Now $3.6m richer, Clark’s life has changed forever. He displayed nerves of steel when chipping stone dead from a tricky lie at the side of the 17th green. Clark again required fortitude at the last; two putts from 60ft would seal victory. The 29-year-old cried with joy after tapping in for a par four.
As the leaders teed off, Tommy Fleetwood was in the midst of completing his second final round of 63 in a US Open. He is the first player in history to achieve that. Fleetwood’s heroics catapulted him to a share of fifth. Even more striking was the fact Fleetwood missed birdie putts inside of 6ft on both the 1st and 18th. “Everything in between was really, really good,” Fleetwood said. “I just need to be higher up the leaderboard coming into Sunday and then have another day like today.”
Australia’s Min Woo Lee and Rickie Fowler, who collapsed to a fourth round 75, tied with Fleetwood. Smith’s six under par sealed fourth, one behind the third-placed Scottie Scheffler. Tom Kim and Harris English completed the top 10.
His attempt to tie things on the 18th green looked like most all of the birdie tries he had over a day in which he hit the ball as well as anyone from tee to green. It was a 40 footer that was tracking but drifted away at the end for a simple tap-in par.
But if there was a single moment that defined the day for McIlroy, it came on the par-5 14th. After driving into the left rough, he punched out to the fairway and had a 125-yard shot into the narrow green.
McIlroy pulled out a sand wedge but then felt the wind kick up. He went to a choked-down gap wedge instead. The approach came up short. He put both hands on his knees, bent down and stared at his caddie, Harry Diamond, in disbelief.
“I might have just had to wait an extra 15 or 20 seconds to let that little gust settle,” McIlroy said.
Instead, moments later, he was down on his knees near the bunker, desperately trying to find the ball that had disappeared in the gnarly grasses above the sand.
He found the ball embedded in the facing just above the bunker. In the past, an embedded ball that wasn’t in the fairway had to be played as it lied. But after a reworking of the rulebook in 2019, free relief is now granted for any ball plugged in any area other than sand.
McIlroy dropped above the bunker, 40 feet away in a perfectly workable lie. He chipped to 10 feet but missed the par putt. His only bogey of the day put him three behind Clark.
For the week, McIlroy hit 59 greens. That was six more than anyone else in the field. What is often a formula for victory instead resulted in McIlroy’s third runner-up finish at a major. He will go to Hoylake next month for the British Open still without a major title since the 2014 PGA Championship.
This close call felt a little like the last one. Last year at St. Andrews, he shared the lead going into the final round. He made two birdies that day and finished two shots back. This time, he made one birdie and finished one shot back.
Someone asked if these close calls are exhausting for a player who ripped off four major titles in his first 25 appearances but remains stuck at four despite spending most of the past nine years among the top 10 players in golf.
“It is, but at the same time, when I do finally win this next major, it’s going to be really, really sweet,” he said. “I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”
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