Familiar heartbreak smothers Rory McIlroy as Claret Jug slips away at Open Championship

May 22, 2024

The greatest risk of romance is tremendous heartbreak, and rarely has that ever been more apparent in golf than it was Sunday evening on the Old Course at St. Andrews as the 150th Open Championship came to a close.

Through three rounds at the most romantic venue in the sport, a fairytale unfolded that was so on the nose, it became hard to comprehend. On a week in which Tiger Woods played the Old for perhaps the final time of his career and Rory McIlroy hat-tipped the 15-time major winner on his way out, it appeared nearly predestined that McIlroy would end his eight-year major drought at the place that matters most.

The masses in attendance at this Open Championship believed all week that the near-decade of disappointment — including an injury withdrawal from the 2015 Open last time St. Andrews hosted — would have been worth it if the one they came to see walked back toward the town with a three-stroke lead Sunday afternoon. Go in any shop, eat in any restaurant in St. Andrews and there was only one name on the lips of the patrons.

For a bit, it looked like McIlroy would deliver. After playing the first 10 holes in 2 under, McIlroy was briefly three clear of the field … and then Cameron Smith completely broke his heart. Five straight birdies to start the second nine, the up-and-down of his life on the Road Hole and a closer at the last to win the Claret Jug led to a major championship-record 30 coming in for Smith.

Fans staggered away from the Eden Estuary as they tried to resuscitate the dream and drag their boy across the finish line, but McIlroy had nothing in the tank and parred the last eight holes (and 12 of the final 13) to lose by two.

As the pall began to settle and McIlroy came around the bend toward the final holes, a baby wailed on the 16th tee. Someone shouted, “You have to wait another six years!” As if letting the Claret Jug slip through his fingers like the sands of time wasn’t already pain enough.

“It’s hard,” Justin Thomas said. “The expectation part is one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with in terms of feeling like you should play well or feeling like you should win or wanting to win because everybody wants you to win. I think that’s really underrated to be able to perform with those expectations and that pressure.”

A theme in golf this summer has been a centuries-old lesson: When something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That was the case Sunday with McIlroy, though in a different way.

The idea of “golf in the kingdom” is having an existential moment. What once meant seaside links played with the soul now means 54 holes played without. Those inside the sport believe McIlroy has been fighting for what’s right when it comes to the future of the game, and it was difficult to find anyone either inside or outside the ropes who wanted to see someone other than him raise the jug on Sunday.

“His aura hasn’t changed,” said Tony Finau, who has known McIlroy since they were 8-years-old. “He’s always been a really kindhearted, genuine person. That hasn’t changed. To me, he’s been the same Rory since I’ve known him. He’s opinionated, but I have to say, I agree with most of the things he says. I think he’s great for our game. He’d be an amazing champion today. I think the golfing world is probably wanting him to win, but for me, whether he wins or not, I’ve always been a big fan of Rory’s, and he’s been a good friend of mine for a very long time.”

Marcus Armitage held a similar perspective: “He does everything right and in the right manner. He spends a lot of time with fans after playing. It’s been too long for him not to win a major championship. … I’m just rooting for Rory.”

There’s only room for one prince in golf, and Sunday was supposed to serve as a reminder that he wears a cap, not a crown. But as the (still) four-time major winner removed his cap on the 72nd hole, disappointment was carved across his face.

McIlroy has more gray hairs than 33-year-olds should. Genetics, perhaps, but also the result of opening his chest and letting the public see inside. Fans love him for his golf; they revere him for everything else.

McIlroy gamely fielded questions in a corner of the makeshift press hut as, 150 yards behind him, Martin Slumbers bellowed about the Champion Golfer of the Year. There were some sad scenes this week at The Open, but this may have been the saddest.

“Whenever you put yourself in that shining light, you’re going to have to deal with setbacks and deal with failures,” McIlroy explained. “Today is one of those times, but I just have to dust myself off and come again and keep working hard and keep believing.”

Rory McIlroy is a romantic. That much is clear. It’s part of why he’s the most compelling figure in the game today. Like everyone in golf, he dreams about the future. Unlike almost everyone in golf, he has the talent to make those dreams come true.

In a quiet moment this week — perhaps as the sun melted into pink late into Saturday evening off the Northern Sea — McIlroy allowed himself to consider what it would feel like to hoist the Claret Jug as a husband and father.

“I’m only human,” he said. “I’m not a robot. Of course you think about it, and you envision it, and you want to envision it. My hotel room is directly opposite the big yellow board on 18 there right of the 1st. And every time I go out, I’m trying to envision ‘McIlroy’ at the top name on that leaderboard, and how did that feel?

“At the start of the day, it was at the top, but at the start of tomorrow, it won’t be. Of course, you have to let yourself dream. You’ve got to let yourself think about it and what it would be like. But once I was on the golf course, it was just task at hand and trying to play the best golf I possibly could.”

It was good golf all week from McIlroy, but it wasn’t good enough. In the end, it was the same story for McIlroy as it’s been for years at major championships: not enough made putts, somebody else lighting the course on fire, too many bad leaves into holes he should have birdied.

The margins are comically thin in major championship golf, and McIlroy — like everyone else — surely thought the magic of St. Andrews would make up the difference. It did not. The irony in this sport for players like McIlroy is that the closer you get to winning, the more disappointing it is when you don’t.

McIlroy slumped out of the media hut and disappeared around a corner. When he reappeared, his wife, Erica, was by his side. They jumped into the middle of a golf cart as Smith estimated how many beers he could pour into the Claret Jug. McIlroy’s manager was on the back of the cart facing the media, his eyes wet and red. He was not the only one.

As the driver hit the pedal, Rory removed his hat, just as he did on the 18th green. As Smith caressed the trophy, McIlroy turned to face his wife. As they began to roll, he put his face into her shoulder and mourned what had been lost. Neither of them moved as they disappeared from sight.

Golf is the cruelest game, but that’s also what makes it the most beautiful.

Rick Gehman, Kyle Porter and Mark Immelman breakdown Cameron Smith’s 2022 Open Championship victory. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.