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The problem with gaining so much so soon is that the loss may seem worse than it really is.
The British Open stung Rory McIlroy, although he said it wasn’t life or death. It could have hurt even more than his 80 in the final round of the 2011 Masters. He was just 21 at the time, without a major, when the talent exceeded expectations.
But then he won a US Open with a record score in Congress later that year. He won the PGA Championship the following year at Kiawah Island. And two years later, he added his name to the jug of claret at Royal Liverpool and won another PGA Championship just four weeks apart.
Four majors in four years. Only three other players from the previous century had as many at 25 or younger – Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
McIlroy is now 33 and still has four majors, not to mention gray hair around the edges. Its popularity is just as great now as it was then, if not more.
McIlroy has now gone through 30 major tournaments since winning his last. Perhaps more surprising is that the British Open was the first time during this drought that it had topped the standings after 54 holes.
He did little harm, and even less good. Imagine having a 54-hole lead in a major tournament, hitting every green in regulation and not winning. McIlroy putt twice on each green. He birdied twice after hitting the par-5 fifth in two and leading the green on the par-4 10th.
The hole really seemed to shrink when Cameron Smith birdied five straight to start the back nine and took the lead. “I had to dig deep to make birdies and I just couldn’t,” McIlroy said.
Don’t imagine McIlroy was the only player to leave St. Andrews – along with two other majors this year – feeling like he should have won.
It only felt that way because so many people wanted him to win.
Save a thought for Cameron Young.
He slammed into the gorse on the accessible par-4 ninth and turned a birdie look into a bogey. Young missed a 6-foot birdie chance on the 15th. He wasted a big, audacious tee shot on the 16th when his corner fell short and rolled down the ridge. His two shots on 17 were better than McIlroy’s, only to squander his birdie chance. And needing something special to stand a chance, he drove the 18th green and landed a 15-foot eagle putt that was only good for a silver medal.
He will have as many “what if” moments as McIlroy. And that’s right from St. Andrews. Young, the PGA Tour’s top rookie this year, also hit a three-putt double bogey on the 16th hole to finish one stroke clear of the PGA Championship playoffs.
Will Zalatoris was not a postman in St. Andrews. He had to settle for two second-place finishes in the majors this year.
Zalatoris threw three putts from 20 feet on the 16th hole at Southern Hills in the PGA Championship. He ended up losing in the playoffs to Justin Thomas. And then at Brookline for the US Open, he narrowly missed a 15-foot putt on the last hole to force the playoffs.
A player stands out from others, and it is a product of expectations. Jordan Spieth knows the feeling. He’s won the Masters and the US Open, was one putt away from qualifying at St. Andrews for the third Grand Slam leg, and was a PGA runner-up.
It’s a unique career performance in the majors. Spieth was 21, in his third year as a pro. Good luck getting up to this, although it’s a nice problem to have.
Does it make it worse or better that McIlroy is the only player to finish in the top 10 of all four majors this year without winning? The last player to do so was Rickie Fowler in 2014, a distant memory as Fowler failed to win a major (and is now on the verge of falling out of the top 150 in the world rankings).
There is some truth to McIlroy’s immediate assessment on Sunday night. He was beaten more than he lost.
Smith shot 30 on the back nine – Jack Nicklaus (1986) and Gary Player (1978) did when they won the Masters – and his 64 was the lowest closing score by a champion ‘Open at St. Andrews. Among the great closing rounds in Open history, it rivals Phil Mickelson’s 65 in his victory at Muirfield in 2013.
“I just have to keep getting into position, keep getting into it,” McIlroy said.
Worse than not winning at St. Andrews, it was so rarely to put himself in that position over the past eight years. Only three times in his previous 29 majors had he started the final round less than five strokes behind.
“Every time you put yourself in that bright light, you’re going to have to deal with setbacks and deal with failures,” he said. “Today is one of those times. But I just have to dust myself off and come back and keep working hard and keep believing.
He has eight months and three weeks before the Masters, his next opportunity. It’s the same expectation for Zalatoris and Young, with two exceptions.
It’s not Rory McIlroy. And they don’t know what they’re missing.
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