HOYLAKE, England — Rory McIlroy sat back, puffed out his cheeks and looked annoyed as his putt flew past the hole.
It was just after 5pm (BST) on Sunday, the hole was the 18th, McIlroy’s 72nd of this year’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, but that scene had played out countless times over the last four days.
He scored rounds of 71, 70, 69 and 68 and tied for sixth place with Emiliano Grillo. There were moments of brilliance, disaster, false dawns, grimaces and smiles.
In other words, it was a performance by McIlroy in a Major that the sports world has become accustomed to.
But even on Sunday, when American Brian Harman secured his first major win with a six-shot victory, the love for McIlroy lingered.
It’s magnetic on these shores, and that’s been evident since it landed in Hoylake earlier in the week.
McIlroy arrived at Royal Liverpool with momentum on Monday, a day after winning the Scottish Open Trophy and winning in Scotland for the first time. As he made his way toward the players’ clubhouse, it didn’t take long for fans to take notice, and before long there were shouts of “Rory” from the younger generation, desperate for him to sign something.
In the afternoon there was a practice session with Shane Lowry, winner of the 2019 Open Championship, and Padraig Harrington, a two-time winner of this major. The trio were upbeat, and when asked if they had a tee time, Lowry responded by saying: “We’ve got four Claret Jugs here lads.”
“Rory has a slight advantage in that he can take some of the trouble,” Harrington remarked afterwards. “He always has a driving advantage and, like every week, will clearly lead shots won from tee.
“But I don’t know if this golf course is the one that gives it an incredible advantage.”
Just after 7am (BST) on Tuesday, with adverse weather conditions forecast later in the day, McIlroy was due to start another practice round with Lowry on the first tee. At Royal Liverpool, news spread quickly and word quickly spread that he had opted to start in the third game instead.
When McIlrory moves, a crowd follows him, and if you didn’t follow his group and ventured elsewhere, you might have thought the course had been evacuated. Everyone else followed McIlroy, eager to catch a glimpse of the superstar and standard-bearer of golf.
The 34-year-old wanted to keep a low profile, but that wasn’t possible. He canceled his press conference on Tuesday – as he did before the US Open in June.
Even Rory McIlroy’s practice sessions drew the most viewers of the week. (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)
His round with Lowry was mixed; some great shots, a few missed putts, but the spring in his stride remained. He was lively.
The crowd of a few hundred at 7am had swelled to four figures before McIlroy and Lowry took 18th place. But when the weather worsened, their lap was over and the day was over.
On Wednesday morning, he returned to the golf course under the Hoylake sun with the Nike cap inside out. The spring in his crotch was still there. He didn’t leave the players’ clubhouse until around 12:45 p.m. while his caddy Harry Diamond was waiting for him on the chipping green.
McIlroy had mixed results playing out of the bunkers, but soon headed out for another practice round. This time he played with Tommy Fleetwood, Viktor Hovland and Tyrrell Hatton. As the afternoon sun coupled with a gentle breeze heated Royal Liverpool, the crowd of four-ball players looked larger than any crowd at June’s US Open at the Los Angeles Country Club.
And when they got to the 18th tee, McIlroy hit an iron and driver to avoid the internal out-of on the right.
The stands rose and called his name. McIlroy responded by tossing his two balls into the crowd, waving at them and disappearing by Thursday afternoon.
Teaming up with Spain’s Jon Rahm and England’s Justin Rose, the gallery was always the biggest of the day after McIlroy’s first round on Thursday. When the Northern Irishman entered the first tee just before 3 p.m., the grandstand exploded.
It was a scene of hope. I hope this will be the big win he’s been looking for since 2014 and edging closer in recent years including 2022 at St Andrews and last month in LA. I hope the fans in attendance, feverish in their admiration for McIlroy, picked the right day to watch.
And by the time he marched down the second hole, the stands, which had been packed to the rafters just 15 minutes earlier, had emptied. They entered the gallery and followed him for the next five and a half hours.
The birdie on the second kick started his round, but as is often the case with McIlroy, it wasn’t an easy afternoon. If it looked like the bit was between his teeth, a crooked shot or a missed putt ensued.
Shouts of ‘Come on Rory!’ followed him around the Royal Liverpool, but also groans as a putt skimmed the hole and stayed out.
By the time he reached the 14th hole, he was 2 over par. But then he made a long putt for a birdie. There was no partying or chest pumping. Instead, he breathed a sigh of relief and acknowledged the gallery.
He birdied the next hole and stayed on the same level until the last hole, where he produced a piece of magic that those who had followed him in the afternoon were dying to see.
Failing to get out of the bunker on the first attempt, he stood on one leg and put his knee on the ground while the grandstand was silent with anticipation.
He swung, the ball bounced out and rolled 10 feet off the pin. He potted the par putt and the silent gallery exploded in unison. The roller coaster ride was over and this time he was pumping his chest.
That enthusiasm continued on Friday morning, where he was once again a magnet for the gallery. A first-place birdie was greeted by a seismic roar. But that soon faded as he earned a 1-under round.
It was a day of high winds, missed putts and sometimes frustration. On the fifth hole, a difficult par 5, he had to ask fans and the media to step back and stop. His tee shot, a booming drive, split the fairway and a birdie followed.
Another focus came on the 12th hole, where he had a short putt for a birdie and had to move away from the ball. The gallery was asked to stop the move. McIlroy missed the putt before walking away, shaking his head.
A smile broke out on his face, but it was more one of anger than joy. His following, the largest on the course, stayed with him to the end. They were repaid when he finally birdied a short putt at 18.
At this point, McIlroy was nine strokes behind the lead. Importantly, though, he had broken through and was optimistic about chasing Harman.
“It’s not entirely out of my control at the moment but at the same time I think if I can get 3-4-5 under par by Sunday I have a really good chance,” he said.
Rahm, his playing partner for the opening two days, showed what’s possible on Saturday by posting his lowest-ever round in a Major at 8-under 63, propelling himself into the competition. The conditions, which should actually be treacherous, were almost perfect. There was little wind and only the occasional shower to contend with. The players wore short sleeves.
McIlroy birdied three of his first five holes, and while he was conservative off the tee and often shot iron, he was aggressive off the fairway. Those early shots were fired on the pins.
The hope that existed on Thursday reached new heights in the first hour of his third round. If Rahm could go down, McIlroy was about to go down. But it was an all too devastating, familiar story.
His putter, which killed him so many times, never even got lukewarm, and with each miss he and the gallery were drained of energy. The moments of the crowd’s outburst had now turned to quiet waves of applause. A spectator jokingly taunted McIlroy as he pulled out a shot iron on the 10th tee.
They knew there would be no attack on the top of the leaderboard. He had 32 putts on Saturday and missed all putts from middle range, killing his birdie chances. He gained .24 strokes in putting this week, ranking 56th in the field. He was just as average on the greens, relying on his driver and irons to keep him in the game.
Late Saturday afternoon and with his chances of competing on Sunday all but exhausted, the gallery began to shrink. Instead, they looked to local hero Tommy Fleetwood.
There was an opportunity to hit a bottom on Saturday, but Rory McIlroy didn’t make it and shot a 69. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
As on Tuesday, McIlroy did not speak to the media after completing his third round. Is the person who’s had to talk so much in the last year tired of hearing their own voice? If that’s the case, you can’t blame him.
McIlroy was here to win, not to talk. The only problem is that his Golf didn’t have much say.
A smile had returned by his afternoon tee time on Sunday. Entering the first he was cheerful and couldn’t suppress his grin. The gallery, obscured by a sea of parasols, reopened to him.
And just like on Saturday, he birdied three of the first five holes. But did anyone really think they could challenge Harman? The noise echoing with every putt at the Royal Liverpool suggested that this was the case.
A youngster who had waited several hours to catch a glimpse of his idol on the fifth tee surely believed he could do it. Telling him what has happened multiple times in the majors over the past nine years would have been cruel.
Just as McIlroy had birdied on the 15th hole, someone on the gallery called out, “This is your house, Rory!” Only it wasn’t. It was in 2014, but in 2023 it belongs to Harman.
Until he reached his 72nd hole, there would be no crowning moment. Everyone knew. And just after 5:10 p.m. (BST) he sunk a par putt to end his best round of the week, giving the crowd a final tribute and submitting his scorecard.
After his round on Sunday, McIlroy seemed confident he would go into his 10th year without a major win, pointing out there is still plenty to play before the end of 2023.
“I can’t sit here and be too frustrated,” said McIlroy, who has finished in the top 10 seven times in his last eight Majors. “If you think about my performances at the Majors between 2016 and 2019, it (his game) is much better.
“I don’t think he’ll go into his tenth year without a big win. I’m thinking about winning a fourth FedEx Cup here in a couple of weeks, winning a fifth Race to Dubai and winning a fifth Ryder Cup. I’m just looking forward to it.”
As he exited the mixed zone area and made his way to the players’ clubhouse one last time, shouts continued: “Rory, boy.” He may have lost count of the number of times he’s heard that phrase since arriving at Royal Liverpool on Monday.
But there’s one thing the gallery at McIlroy needed to be reminded of…
It’s hope that kills you.
(Top Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)