Rory McIlroy comfortably missed the US Open cut for the second year running but insisted he was looking to the future with confidence after a late birdie barrage eased his pain at Erin Hills.
The world No 2 followed his hellish 78 of Thursday with a one-under par 71 yesterday, picking up shots on four of his last six holes to finish well outside the projected cut mark on five-over par.
“Showed up for the last six holes, anyway,” McIlroy said wistfully after tapping in from a foot for a two at the ninth.
“I definitely hit it better off the tee. I think I hit 10 or 11 fairways other than the four or five I did yesterday. Gave myself a lot more looks.
“But I think at the end of the day, it’s competitive rounds and getting the card in my hand that I need. And I’ve been very light on competitive rounds this year, so it’s just a matter of getting into a good run of golf now.
“I saw some positives there on the back nine coming in, and hopefully I can take them to the Travelers next week. And as I said, just excited to get on a run of golf and get going.”
After playing just six events in six months and none at all since the Players Championship a month ago as he opted to rest and treat the stress fracture of the ribs that has bothered him since January, McIlroy was undercooked for the US Open and now plans to play four of the next five weeks, including The Open.
“Yesterday, coming off an injury, I was a little anxious going out there,” he said of his 78. “I got off to a good start, but it sort of caught up with me as the round went on.
“I think the more rounds I can play, I’m hopefully going to get rid of all that stuff and hopefully strip it down to what you saw the last six holes.”
Shane Lowry made some mental errors in a 74 that left him eight shots behind clubhouse leader Paul Casey on one-over par and teetering on the cut line as the wind dropped for the afternoon starters.
But for McIlroy, it was all about lack of competitive play.
“In practice I was really, really good, and I just wasn’t able to translate that on to the golf course,” McIlroy said.
“I played 54 holes around here before the golf tournament and I felt really, really comfortable.
“But you never really know until you put a card in your hand and you’re under the gun little bit and some of the weaknesses and flaws that are in my game at the minute showed up over the last couple of days. It’s good to see those and see what needs to be worked on.”
Needing a round of 68 to have a fighting chance of being around for the weekend, the 28-year old Co Down man was far more accurate from the tee yesterday, hitting 11 of 14 fairways compared to just five on Thursday.
His problem was getting the ball in the hole with his new TaylorMade Spider Red putter.
Level par with 10 holes to go, he needed birdies but instead he three-putted for par at the 18th and four-putted for bogey from just short of the par-five first, He then bogeyed the second, thinning his pitch through the back of the green before angrily spearing his wedge into the turf.
After another dropped another shot at the third left him near the back of the field on nine-over, he started to make birdies when it no longer mattered.
“I started to let it go a little bit on the back nine there today and showed what I can do with birdies at four of the last six,” he said.
“At least I know it’s in there.”
Lowry was on the back foot from the off as the course played two shots harder than on Thursday and he was happy in the end to shoot a 74 that he felt left him a shot inside the cut line on one-over par before the afternoon starters began making birdies galore.
The Offaly man failed to birdie the first, then drove into sand and short sided himself at the second before dropping another shot after driving into deep rough at the fourth.
He did well to save par at the 232-yard sixth, where he pushed a five-iron into a cavernous greenside bunker but after a birdie at the par-five seventh, he ran his 60 footer six feet past and three-putted.
He then made a good bogey at the ninth after failing to escape at the first attempt from an awkward lie in a greenside bunker.
He was sitting on the cut line at two-over par heading down the back nine but later admitted that missing the weekend didn’t enter his head until he was told it was the top 60, rather than the top 70 and ties who progressed.
After following a birdie two at the 198-yard 13th with a clumsy bogey at the par-five 14th, he made a two at the 16th from four feet and parred home.
“I fought well on the back nine,” Lowry said, believing he was safely through to the weekend.
“I got off to a bit of a shaky start and hit a few bogeys. It was a lot tougher with tricky pins, so I am pretty happy.
“I made a bad mental error trying to step on a lob wedge on 14, made birdie on 16, made hard work of the last, but I am here for the weekend.”
That wasn’t certain as the afternoon wore on as the wind dropped and the cut moved to one-over, leaving him on the brink.
“I think the winning score is going to be in single digits — maybe seven under — so hopefully I make a few birdies and give myself a chance,” he said of his plans for today.
“If I just keep doing what I am doing, I feel like I know where the ball is going. If things don’t go my way this week I know I have got a good summer ahead of me.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved