LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA – There are a number of players who will walk away from the U.S. Open disheartened by a major opportunity that got away from them in a hail of bogeys and doubles down the stretch at Torrey Pines, but Rory McIlroy is not one of them.
Despite a bogey-double bogey combo on 11 and 12 that all but ended his chances of ending a seven-year major drought, McIlroy accentuated only the positives of his seventh-place experience at Torrey Pines.
“I think the best way to describe it is I think the last few times I've been in this sort of position, I've went out on Sunday hoping to play well,” he said, “where I feel now that I know what to do to play well and I know I have the tools to play well, and it's just a matter of execution and sticking to what I've been working on.
“It was way better today. The score doesn't suggest it. There was two holes that really were the end of my title hopes, but apart from that this week, it's been really positive. I have to take the positives from this week. Yes, it is disappointing that I had a chance and didn't get the job done, but considering where I've been the previous few majors, it's a big step in the right direction.”
While he still hasn’t won a major since taking the Open and PGA Championships back-to-back in 2014, McIlroy actually extended another streak that seemed unlikely from where he was after the Masters and PGA this year – he has not posted three consecutive finishes outside the top 10 in majors since 2013.
“It sometimes feels further away than it actually is, but as I said, going from walking away Friday night from Augusta to basically being right in the thick of things in the back nine of the U.S. Open, it hasn't felt like it's been a quick turnaround, but definitely I'm on the right path,” he said. “I feel way more comfortable with what I'm doing way out on the course, especially in a situation like this.”
It looked that way when he put himself into prime position with a third-round 67 that was close to vintage McIlroy. He shared a piece of the lead at 4-under on the front side Sunday and seemed as capable as anyone else among a cluster of 10 players within a shot of the lead at finishing it off.
“You're trying to win a major championship on a Sunday,” he said. “The way I hit the ball tee to green out there today, I just felt much more comfortable and in control of everything than the previous few times that I've been in this position.”
McIlroy missed golden birdie chances on No 7 (7 feet) and the ninth (12 feet) that could have nosed himself in front. He made a huge 8-footer to save par on 10 but then three-putted 11 from 33 feet, pulling his 4-footer for par to slip three strokes behind Oosthuizen in the group behind him.
His hopes unraveled on the difficult par-4 12th, where three consecutive bunker shots led to a double bogey. He had a glimmer of life after nearly making a long eagle putt on 13, but that was later snuffed out by a bogey on the par-3 16th.
“I gave myself a great chance today – even through 10 holes, I was right in the thick of things,” he said. “It was really two holes that … basically stopped the sort of run at the title. I played well. I felt comfortable with what I was doing out there. I felt like tee to green I was really solid for the first few holes, but once I made those little mistakes on 11 and 12, I felt like I was just chasing a little bit, and then ultimately couldn't really get anything done from there.”
McIlroy believes he’s on the right path heading the 2021’s last major opportunity at Royal St. George’s next month.
“I just have a better understanding of what I need to do, how I need to do it,” he said. “Again, it's just going from hoping to do something to actually knowing that you can, and I feel this week I've proved to myself that I know that I can, and that's exciting going forward.”