LOS ANGELES — Just outside of the scoring tent where he had recorded an even-par 70 in the final round of the U.S. Open, all Rory McIlroy could do was stare at the ground in silence.
His face reddened by a full day of sunlight, the four-time major champion took a sip of his water bottle, shook his head a few times and winced. He couldn’t start going through his post-round interview circuit until it was official, so he waited for the inevitable sound to come from the nearby 18th green — a cheer that would indicate a familiar fate he had already been forced to accept: He had lost his chance at a fifth major championship by a single stroke.
“I didn’t even need to wait for the tap-in,” McIlroy said of Wyndham Clark‘s par putt on 18, which secured Clark’s first-ever major victory. “It’s just fine, fine margins at this level and at this tournament specifically, but I fought to the very end.”
McIlroy’s voice sounded an octave or two lower, his shoulders slumped and his demeanor was one of resignation. Perhaps no one is intimately familiar with those fine margins more than him — Sunday marked the fourth time in the past two years that he has finished in the top five of a major and the second time in the past four majors that he’s been the favorite heading into the final round only to come up just short.
“The last real two chances I’ve had at majors, I feel like have been pretty similar performances,” McIlroy said. “I played the way I wanted to play. There were just a couple of shots, two or three shots over the course of the round, that I’d like to have back.”
In what felt like a painful redux of last year’s Open Championship, where McIlroy held a share of the 54-hole lead but allowed Cameron Smith to slip past him during the final round, McIlroy couldn’t make any of the putts he needed to hang on to his major chances. Ironically, he shot 70 (2 under) that day at the Old Course, too, and it wasn’t enough.
McIlroy didn’t make many mistakes throughout his even-par round at the Los Angeles Country Club, but much like at St. Andrews, he didn’t capitalize on the few opportunities either. On the third hole, McIlroy missed a 16-foot birdie putt, which would prove to be the theme of his day. Between the eighth hole and the 12th hole, McIlroy missed potential birdie putts of 7 feet, 14 feet, 15 feet and 18 feet. Pars weren’t hurting him, but they weren’t helping him either. Those fine margins loomed larger by the hole.
“I don’t think I was hitting bad putts; just hitting them just with slightly the wrong speed,” McIlroy said. “Some were coming up short, some were going a little long.”
Besides the short birdie putt on the eighth hole, the other shot McIlroy said he’d like to have back happened on the par-5 14th hole. McIlroy had a sand wedge into the green and a chance to get another birdie look. Instead, he flew it short, the wind batting it down at the most inopportune time. As McIlroy looked back on it, he said he probably should have waited 15 or 20 seconds to let the gust subside. Instead, he made bogey. The margins had struck again.
By the time he made his way down the final stretch, McIlroy was going to need a miracle to win, let alone make a playoff. Long birdie putts on 16, 17 and 18 couldn’t find the back of the cup, missing multiple times by a few inches. Once again, the margins didn’t fall on his side. And once Clark hit the green on his approach into 18, it was all over.
“You don’t want to wish bad on anyone, but you’re really hoping for a three-putt,” McIlroy admitted. “Wyndham was pretty much rock solid all day.”
Over the past two years, McIlroy has won other tournaments, the Tour Championship even, all the while carrying the public-facing load of a golf world that’s been fractured and is now uncertain. This week, he tightened up his approach, doing fewer media appearances and further narrowing his focus while playing some of his best golf despite not having his best stuff. It all looked to be building up to a victory. But then again, so did things at the Old Course last year. Those margins keep getting in the way; the scars keep getting deeper.
Once Clark’s final putt dropped, McIlroy appeared to quickly make his way through disappointment and on to something like acceptance. As he stood in front of reporters and answered questions, that acceptance gave way to something like motivation. Like any athlete at this level who has won before, it’s easy to know what goes into the necessary cocktail of self-belief after a loss. You always have to think you can win again.
“I’m getting closer,” McIlroy said. “The more I keep putting myself in these positions, sooner or later it’s going to happen for me.”
It’s hard for McIlroy to get much closer than he has the past two years. Earlier this week, he talked about watching old highlights of himself at his last major win — the 2014 Open Championship at Hoylake. It’s been nine years, and McIlroy hasn’t lifted another major trophy since. Next month, he and the golf world are going back to Hoylake for the 2023 Open.
A win there would almost be too perfect, too full circle to dream of for McIlroy and the thousands of fans who tried to will him to a win Sunday, both at LACC and around the world. Yet whether it happens at Hoylake or somewhere else down the line, McIlroy has no choice but to believe that the fine margins will favor him once again. In the face of another disappointing defeat, it’s the only thing that could make the pain he felt after his final round worth it.
“I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship,” McIlroy said. “When I do finally win this next major, it’s going to be really, really sweet.”