A final-round 67 put him in a tie for fourth place alongside Rafa Cabrera Bello in the 146th Open at Royal Birkdale on Sunday, seven strokes adrift of the Champion Golfer Jordan Spieth, and made it a 15th consecutive major since he won the fourth and most recent of his titles at the 2014 PGA in Kentucky at Valhalla.
It is a drought that frustrates McIlroy, 28, but after a 2017 campaign blighted by a rib injury that has twice sidelined him, and interrupted by his wedding to Erica Stoll in Ireland three months ago, he is prepared to look long-term and trust his patience to see him through.
“Jeez, one year, one major feels like too long,” McIlroy said on Sunday of his frustration. “But these things happen.
“You look at Jack Nicklaus, he went through a stretch where he didn’t win a major in three years. I’m not comparing myself to Jack. It’s hard to win them. It’s very hard. It’s the reason especially in this generation, excluding Tiger, no one’s got above five. So it’s tough to win them.
“We have 20- or 30-year window of where we can. And I got off to a great start in my career. But, as I said, I’ve still got 15, 20 more years to add to that tally. But, yeah, look, I feel like three years has been too long. But at the same time, I’m not going to rush it, I’m not going to stay impatient. I’m going to play my game. And hopefully, my chance arrives at some point and I’m able to take it.”
As sensible as that approach is, McIlroy actually has much to be satisfied with from his week’s work in Southport, not least the $480,000 (€410,000) pay cheque he received from the R&A for his fourth-place Open finish.
He may not have made the front-running Spieth nervous at any juncture in the tournament but after three missed cuts in his previous four starts and the admission he is going to have to manage that rib problem through the rest of the season until he can give the injury proper rest in December, there are signs that his game is coming around with two of his favourite tournaments looming into view next month at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship, both being played on courses where he has collected silverware in the past.
There were some poor shot-making decisions and execution across his four rounds of 71, 68, 69 and 67, not least the awful start to his week with five bogeys in his opening six holes. McIlroy finished a lowly 58th in greens in regulation of the 77 players who made the halfway cut and 41st in fairways hit, losing his ball at the 15th on Sunday just as he was primed to mount a genuine challenge.
Yet he also finished sixth in the field for the number of birdies, 15 to the second-ranked Spieth’s 17, and an encouraging fourth in Putts as Spieth, the acclaimed putting master, finished 11th.
“I think iron play let me down a little bit this week. That’s it. If I hit more greens, I give myself more chances I’ll shoot better scores,” McIlroy said.
“I think I held some really nice putts over the course of the four days.
“And my short game is really good when I needed it to be. My ball-striking got a bit better as the week went on. So, yeah, it’s definitely reinforcement that I’m working on the right things. And I saw a lot of improvement as the week went on, and hit some good shots out there. Yeah, it’s getting there.”