Greeted by the warmest of hugs after yet more agony in the majors, Rory McIlroy’s wait for glory goes on. As Australian Cameron Smith’s thoughts echoed around the 18th green at St Andrews, the Northern Irishman stood in sheer disbelief, tucked away outside the scorer’s hut after the Claret Jug slipped away during a fourth round that could not be described as a meltdown, it simply lacked a spark to take him across the finish line. Consoled by his wife, Erica Stoll, and drained from a tortuous day, McIlroy was soon slumped over and whisked away on the back of a buggy to escape a familiar nightmare.
His capitulation at Augusta in 2011 still rankles but a mature McIlroy, embracing his role as golf’s saviour amid a civil war sparked by LIV Golf, oozed class even at his most vulnerable during his latest disappointment. He refused to protect himself from the moment, which would have delivered immortality at the Old Course this week. Indeed, as he coined, winning here is “the Holy Grail of golf” and it was within his grasp until a rampant Smith caught lightning in a bottle on a breathtaking back nine. Five successive birdies inspired just the third final round of eight under par or better to seize a maiden major victory. His 20-under-par total, matching the record held by Henrik Stenson in 2016, toppled McIlroy and Viktor Hovland, who had held a four-shot lead to start the final round. The 28-year-old also became the first Australian player to win The Open since Greg Norman in 1993 and the first Australian to capture this famous trophy at St Andrews since Kel Nagle in 1960. History-maker.
But amid Aussie euphoria and counting how many beers could fit inside the Claret Jug, the story of The Open 2022 is about how, after eight soul-searching years, career-defining redemption eluded McIlroy once more, eventually leaving him third behind Cameron Young on 18 under par.
“I'll be OK,” McIlroy said. “It’s not, at the end of the day, it’s not life or death. I’ll have other chances to win the Open Championship and other chances to win majors. It’s one that I feel like I let slip away, but there will be other opportunities.
“I got beaten by a better player this week. Twenty under par for four rounds of golf around here is really, really impressive playing. I just have to dust myself off and come again.”
While McIlroy appears better equipped to deal with this setback compared to his woes of the past, the abrupt nature of the shifting tide will be difficult to stomach, given how he had expertly kept himself in his own “bubble” as player partner Hovland struggled with the scorching pace from the contenders ahead on the course.
Without a ruthless streak to seize a three-stroke lead with birdie putts on six and nine, McIlroy eventually ceded control around the 14th as Smith supremely navigated this speedway of a golf course deep into the Scottish summer. Perhaps his most impressive moment, even more so than his birdie trail, was how he managed to cope on 17. Forced to slow down and putt around the Road Hole bunker before a nerveless 10-footer disappeared to save par, he then accelerated once again on 18 to make a crucial birdie to resist Young’s eagle and clinch victory. McIlroy would deliver a perfect bullet of a drive down the same hole, nodding with determination at caddy Harry Diamond to further underline his hardened shell and belief until the very end.
“[The plan] was working well until I needed to respond to what Cam was doing out there,” McIlroy said. “Coming down on 14, I knew that at that point Cam had birdied to go to 19 and I was at 18, so I knew that I needed to respond. I just couldn't find the shots or the putts to do that.”
Tiger Woods revelled in the charm of St Andrews on Friday, evoking memories for his legion of supporters about the aura created throughout his prime to tame this course in 2000 and 2005. But McIlroy continues to carve out a different, yet equally fascinating, legacy. One that is more relatable, given the struggles.
“He’s obviously a great player,” Smith said of McIlroy. “He’s one of those guys that you can’t help but stop when he’s hitting balls on the range, and he just keeps knocking on doors every week, it seems like.
“He’s probably the most consistent player out here. Yeah, he’s going to get a major, I’m sure, very soon. He’s just really solid. For me, I've played with Rory a few times, and there’s really nothing that you can fault.”
Now with 17 top-10 finishes in the majors since winning the 2014 PGA Championship, more than any other player, McIlroy may eventually reflect on 2022 as the year he discovered the formula to consistently contend in the majors after completing four top-eight finishes.
This was not the fairytale ending McIlroy craved so dearly but, unlike before, there is genuine belief he can prevail despite fresh adversity in the majors. McIlroy’s next date with destiny will deliver more gripping drama, but for now he must process how St Andrews for the 150th Open Championship was simply not his time.