In a perfect golfing world, you knew how the 150th edition of the British Open at St. Andrews in Scotland should end on Sunday.
Rory McIlroy should win it. Not going away, but with enough of a lead that the traditional swamping of the 18th fairway by fans could be appropriately festive.
In doing so, McIlroy would break his eight-year major duck, proving that he is one of the all-timers. As the emergent defender of the PGA Tour faith, LIV golf and its sinister backers would be put in their place.
You could already feel every golf journo in the world weeping onto his keyboard as McIlroy broke down during the trophy ceremony. It would be one of the great occasions in the game’s modern history.
All McIlroy had to do was hold a four-shot lead on a course he had never scored a competitive round under 70 on.
So you know how that goes, right?
McIlroy didn’t just lose the Open on Sunday. He lost it in the most Rory McIlroy way possible. Other golfers implode noisily. McIlroy quietly fades away as the day goes on.
One moment, he’s vivid on your screen, swinging with confidence. The next, he’s a pastel smudge as other golfers pass him by. It’s difficult to say in retrospect when one guy becomes the other. It just sort of happens while you thought you were paying attention.
After that four-shot lead had turned definitively into a two-shot deficit and victory into collapse, McIlroy tried to get his head around what he screwed up. His conclusion: nothing.
“Didn’t really feel like I did many things wrong there,” McIlroy said. “I played a really controlled round of golf.”
Correct. McIlroy didn’t bogey on Sunday. He didn’t hit one of those sand traps that are more like dry wells. Didn’t shank one into the crowd. He didn’t even miss a fairway.
He also didn’t hit an important putt. He didn’t really go for it on any hole. While he was controlling himself, eventual champion Cameron Smith was letting it fly.
Smith is one of those golfers you know to see, but you may not know to golf. In a game increasingly populated by muscly he-men, Smith is reedy and slope-shouldered. Between the pubescent ‘stache, the unironic mullet and the flat-billed ballcap, Smith looks like a cartoon mouse that races Go-Karts for a living.
But if you were to find yourself in a life-and-death situation and could only have one pro golfer there to get you out of it, it might be the 28-year-old Australian. While other golfers overcome pressure, Smith does not appear to perceive it in the first place.
Again and again, Smith had chances to blow his day to hell. Each time, he hit stupendous putts that propelled him forward. Given the occasion, his five birdies between the 10th and 14th holes stand as one of the great stretches of play in major history.
He pooched his approach on the 18th, forcing him to hit a 75-foot up-and-over putt that was the equivalent of curling the ball along a cliff’s edge. With the whole of Britain wishing him ill, Smith did it like it was nothing.
The result was a historic round, including the lowest final nine (30) by any major champion since Jack Nicklaus did it at the 1986 Masters.
If Smith had any sense of what he’d managed, you couldn’t tell by listening to him. If the yin is his professional sang-froid, the yang is the speaking ability of a trout.
“I’m going to fall apart here. I know it,” Smith said after he’d taken hold of the famous jug. That was the only interesting thing he said, and it wasn’t true. He waded through a thicket of clichés and ended with, “This one’s for Oz.”
Yes, they’ll love that in Scotland.
Emotionally, McIlroy provided the value. He appeared stunned as it ended. He pulled off his cap and you could really see the grey in his hair. He’s only 33.
After failing to provide an explanation for his loss besides putting (in fairness, not a bad one) he tried to seem upbeat about his major chances.
“It’s coming,” McIlroy said.
Is it? Sunday was the clincher – McIlroy’s near misses now define his career in ways that his four major titles no longer can.
He last won a big one in 2014. Since then, he has finished in the top five at a major eight times. He was second at this year’s Masters, tied for fifth at the U.S. Open a few weeks ago and third on Sunday (behind the other Cameron – Young).
Other people would really like to win a major championship. McIlroy has to win one. If he doesn’t win another major, he may come to be known as the unluckiest lucky person who’s ever lived.
“I’m knocking on the door,” McIlroy said. “I just have to stay patient.”
When they swung back to the NBC booth, host Dan Hicks said, “He remains optimistic!”
“Yeah,” his partner, former pro Paul Azinger said, with an implied eyeroll. “He has to.”
That’s what happens when even the nicest person fails over and over again – sympathy turns to scorn, even from your friends.
McIlroy tries to protect himself with relentless positivity. But that’s getting harder and harder to buy. You can’t call this tournament in this particular place “the Holy Grail” one day, and then expect people to believe you’re totally okay with letting it slip from your hands a few days later.
You don’t want to write off a guy this young, but it is starting to feel as though McIlroy is one of those pros who cannot get out of his own head. That the setbacks have become self-reinforcing – each one increasing the likelihood of the one to follow.
The PGA Tour went into the year’s final major hoping for a headline win over its LIV rivals, one that would resonate through the off-season to come. It didn’t get one it wanted, but it got something nearly as good. It got Rory McIlroy’s showdown with history acquiring new urgency.
How many times can the world’s worst best golfer come this close and fail again? Tune in to the Masters next April to find out.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that golfer Cameron Smith completed the lowest back nine of any major champion. In fact, Jack Nicklaus also played a 30-stroke final nine, at the 1986 Masters.