ST. ANDREWS – Every day, Rory McIlroy would gaze out the window of his hotel room overlooking the 18th hole at the Old Course and envision seeing his name atop the giant yellow leaderboard as a British Open champion at the home of golf.
It was actually there Sunday, when he walked onto the first tee to loud cheers — “Bring it home, Rory!” — for the start of his final round. Still there about two hours later, when McIlroy held a two-shot lead after 10 holes and golf’s “holy grail,” as he calls winning an Open Championship at St. Andrews, was oh-so-close.
Imagine, then, the pain McIlroy felt at failing to close out a first major championship victory since 2014.
“At the end of the day, it’s not life or death,” McIlroy said. "I’ll have other chances to win the Open Championship and other chances to win majors.
“But it’s one that I feel like I let slip away.”
It was with a resigned look that McIlroy removed his cap and saluted the spectators behind and on both sides of the 18th green after his 2-under 70 that left him two strokes behind the champion golfer of the year, Cameron Smith.
McIlroy said he didn't do much wrong Sunday. He just didn't do too much right, either.
The simple fact is that McIlroy's putter went cold. He two-putted on every green in his final round, making just two birdies.
Smith, for his part, made eight birdies — five coming in succession at the start of his back nine to give him the lead and another at the last to leave McIlroy, waiting 350 yards back on the 18th tee, needing to make eagle to force a playoff.
With thousands of fans watching from the grandstands around the 18th green and more from hotel balconies lining one of the most famous holes in golf, McIlroy hit his tee shot short of the green.
He had to chip in from 27 yards but his shot flew past the hole. His shoulders sunk. He finished on 18 under, two behind Smith and in third place, and his long wait for a major — to join the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson on No. 5 — will head into a ninth year.
“I got beaten by a better player this week,” said McIlroy, speaking in a media tent in earshot of cheers from the 18th green where Smith was being handed the claret jug. "Twenty under par for four rounds of golf around here is really, really impressive playing, especially to go out and shoot 64 today to get it done.
“Yeah, I’ll rue a few missed putts that slid by.”
Playing disciplined golf got McIlroy to the point where he was tied for the lead with Viktor Hovland on 16 under after three rounds. And he stayed true to that approach Sunday, when he played steady and let those behind him try to make the big plays.
McIlroy was never in trouble off the tee and he hit every green in regulation. He was the solo leader from the fifth hole to the 13th hole. He was bogey-free.
It was a controlled, measured performance on the final day of a major, which cannot always be said of McIlroy.
The putts just didn't drop.
What felt like a big one came on the tough Road Hole, No. 17, where McIlroy hit to 18 feet for one of his best shots of the day. He missed the putt left, bent his knees, then looked up to the sky.
“I wasn’t really concerned about what anyone else was doing. I was just doing my own thing,” McIlroy said.
“It was working well until I needed to respond to what Cam was doing out there. Coming down on No. 14, I knew that at that point Cam had birdied to go to 19 (under) and I was at 18 (under). So I knew that I needed to respond. I just couldn’t find the shots or the putts to do that.”
The majors are over for 2022 and McIlroy is the only player to finish in the top 10 of all of them. He called it one of the best seasons in a long time.
Still, in his upcoming three weeks off, he'll regret how a second claret jug — this one, the most coveted of all at the home of golf — slipped through his fingers.
“I can’t be too despondent because of how this year’s went and this year’s going,” he said. “I’m playing some of the best golf I’ve played in a long time. So it’s just a matter of keep knocking on the door, and eventually one will open.”
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80