Promising start fades as another major slips by for Rory McIlroy

McIlroy’s momentum came to a thud – or more literally, a chunk – on the par-3 sixth that was the beginning of his derailment on Saturday as well
Promising start fades as another major slips by for Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, reacts after missing a putt on the sixth hole during the final round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Southern Hills Country Club, Sunday, May 22, 2022, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Matt York)

It seemed all too familiar, almost predictable. 

A day after skulking away without comment after two desultory days of golf left Rory McIlroy staring up at 16 names and a nine-shot chasm ahead of him on the leaderboard, he started rattling the backdoor at the PGA Championship.

It was like Thursday all over again – or Sunday at Augusta last month – with McIlroy storming out the gates of Southern Hills with four consecutive birdies on Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5. He shot from T17 all the way to T5 before the final groups had even left the practice range.

Could it be done? Could a 64 or 63 or perhaps even a tournament-record 62 be enough for McIlroy to steal away with his third Wanamaker Trophy? It’s not like world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler was sitting at the top in relative comfort this time.

Four of the top five players at the top of the 54-hole leaderboard had fewer combined major championship starts among them than the fifth man’s modest 27. The man to beat, Mito Pereira, was playing his first PGA Championship and wasn’t even a PGA Tour player this time last year.

Surely they all could hear McIlroy’s prominent footsteps stomping up the steps toward the backdoor he tried to break down at the Masters just a month before. Shane Lowry noticed what McIlroy was doing on the leaderboards early Sunday, and he knew everybody else who mattered did as well.

“It’s an interesting leaderboard,” said Lowry when he finished. “I think Rory … if he can post 5 or 6 (under) he’ll definitely ask a question. The other guys up there are not serial winners and they won’t be happy to see him up there.

Southern Hills, however, is not a course designed for chasing. And when a gap as large as nine shots and so many names are between you and the top, you can’t afford even the smallest hiccup.

McIlroy’s momentum came to a thud – or more literally, a chunk – on the par-3 sixth that was the beginning of his derailment on Saturday as well.

Flaring his tee shot on the par-3 wide right and well away from the hazard he found the day before, McIlroy chunked his chip. His long par save putt never had a chance.

When his long birdie putt on the seventh slowly lipped out, the moment he hopes to conjure seemed to be gone. Chances slid away on 9 (11 feet for birdie), 12 (15 feet), 13 (10 feet) and 15 (13 feet).

His hopes were buried under a train of 10 consecutive pars that left him no closer than the fifth-place spot and five strokes from the lead that he raced to at the start. That he bogeyed the driveable 17th likely didn’t matter at that point.

He'll leave Southern Hills without a trophy and without any of the excuses he’s had lately.

He got off to the quick start he’d wanted – 5-under 65 and leading after the first round.

He got the favourable side of the draw – failing to capitalize with a second-round 71 when the players who surged past him were painting the board red with birdies.

He didn’t get outclassed by the calibre of the competition – the pedigree of the contenders on the last lap Sunday more resembling a leaderboard at the John Deere Classic than a major championship.

Another backdoor high finish will look good outlined in yellow on his Wikipedia page. But McIlroy isn’t playing for yellow and top 10s. He’s playing for a legacy championships, and the longer he goes without adding to the four he put on his résumé from 2011-14, the more frustration builds up.

Fair? Probably not. But that’s the bed he’s made for himself as one of the current game’s greats.

“The armchair golfers don’t realize how hard it is out here,” said Lowry. “It’s not as easy as shooting 65 in the first round. I saw a quote from him from last week where was he hasn’t won a major since 2014 but he has pretty much done everything else you have to do in the world of golf. So it’s not like he’s in a slump.

“It’s like you’re a victim of your own success. People expect him to win 10 majors when he won those four and it just hasn’t worked out like that. But he’s only 33 now and he still got a long way to go in his career.”

More in this section

Ireland's Top 10 Hidden Gems

Ten of the best golf courses in Ireland that too few people know about.

Read Here

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox