Rory McIlroy started his final round in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, Akron, Ohio, with three birdies in six holes to get within a stroke of the lead only to fade disappointingly around the turn and fail to put in a serious challenge over the closing holes.
Instead, it was Japanese golfer Hideki Matsuyama who played with the greater composure and skill and had one hand on his second world title of the year, standing 14 under for the tournament, seven under for the round and three ahead of his nearest rivals.
McIlroy now heads for Quail Hollow and Charlotte, North Carolina, for this week’s PGA Championship without a tournament win to his credit this year in what is becoming an increasingly frustrating campaign.
The early positive signs yesterday indicated that his shock parting of the ways with long term caddy JP Fitzgerald and the appointment of his close friend Harry Diamond might be about to pay immediate dividends.
Instead, he struggled over the closing holes and actually fell back into the pack. He did birdie the 18th to finish in one under 69 and seven under overall.
Once McIlroy’s putter clicks into working order, there is no more formidable player on the planet and that’s what he looked like for much of his opening eight holes. Massive tee shots, some reaching close to 400 yards, were followed by pinpoint irons and for a time the flat stick was in decent working order.
The inevitable birdie was acquired at the long 2nd and two imperious shots into the 4th, always regarded as Firestone’s most difficult challenge, were followed by a lovely putt from 12 feet. Although his drive found the rough at the 6th, McIlroy played a sensible second away from the trouble on the left to 25 feet and again judged the putt perfectly for his third birdie.
He was now within a stroke of the lead held by the Belgian homas Pieters and the powerful Matsuyama. Even then, though, he needed to hole just about everything to get into the lead and a likely chance passed at the 8th where he launched a huge drive to within a little flick of a wedge of the green at a hole measuring 500 yards.
After leaving his approach about 12 feet below the hole, he missed for birdie as the ball just slid by on the left.
The first sign that Rory might be about to go back to his bad old ways came at the 9th.
He cut his tee shot into the right rough where he was slightly cut off by the towering Firestone trees, was short in two, chipped to the back edge and two-putted for his first bogey in 17 holes.
This setback caused him to fall back to eight under and into 5th place at the halfway stage of his round behind Maysuyama, 11 under, and the charging American Charley Hoffman and Pieters, both nine under, and level at eight under with Zach Johnson.
While just every one of the main contenders was maintaining their challenge with some great work on the greens, McIlroy was quickly slipping out of contention.
As is so often the case, he was shaving the holes instead of knocking the putts in and frequently, too, relying on a chip and putt to save par.
Even that didn’t save him at the 14th and 15th as he fell back to six under, where he had started and where the frailty of his short game was cruelly exposed.