ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Each time Rory McIlroy ventured out of his hotel room in St. Andrews, Scotland, this week, he could see the big yellow scoreboard above the first and 18th holes at the Old Course.
At the start of the final round of the 150th edition of The Open on Sunday, McIlroy’s name was at the top, along with Norway’s Viktor Hovland. But after 18 holes, McIlroy’s name had slipped to third after he had another major championship slip through his hands.
McIlroy, a four-time major winner, finished two shots behind Australia’s Cameron Smith, who carded an 8-under 64 on Sunday and finished 20 under after 72 holes.
“I’m only human. I’m not a robot,” McIlroy said. “Of course you think about it, and you envision it, and you want to envision it. … And every time I go out, I’m trying to envision McIlroy at the top name on that leaderboard and how did that feel?
“At the start of the day, it was at the top, but at the start of tomorrow, it won’t be. Of course, you’ve got to let yourself dream. You’ve got to let yourself think about it and what it would be like, but once I was on the golf course, it was just [the] task at hand and trying to play the best golf I possibly could.”
McIlroy, 33, has now played eight full seasons since his last major championship victory at the 2014 PGA Championship. Since then, there have been 31 majors played, which were won by 23 different golfers — just not him.
It was the 17th time McIlroy has finished in the top 10 in a major, the most by any player since 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has finished in the top five nine times, including in three of four this season.
“I’ll be OK,” McIlroy said. “At the end of the day, it’s not life or death. I’ll have other chances to win the Open Championship and other chances to win majors. It’s one that I feel like I let slip away, but there will be other opportunities.”
McIlroy had a four-shot advantage at the start of the round and a two-stroke cushion over Hovland at the turn. He didn’t let this one slip away as much as others in the past. Smith posted one of the best final rounds in major championship history. Smith shot 6-under 30 on the back nine, after making five consecutive birdies.
McIlroy didn’t play poorly; he just didn’t play well enough to win the Claret Jug. He hit 18 of 18 fairways. He hit 12 of 16 greens. He didn’t make a single bogey. While Smith went on a birdie run, McIlroy couldn’t get his approach shots close enough to give himself good looks. He narrowly missed several birdie putts.
“I was hitting good putts,” McIlroy said. “They just weren’t dropping.”
McIlroy is only the second player in the last 30 years to have the lead or co-lead after 54 holes, play a bogey-free final round and lose. Jason Day was the other in 2015.
“He’s obviously a great player,” Smith said of McIlroy. “He’s one of those guys that you can’t help but stop when he’s hitting balls on the range, and he just keeps knocking on doors every week, it seems like. He’s probably the most consistent player out here. Yeah, he’s going to get a major, I’m sure, very soon. He’s just really solid.”
McIlroy will have to wait nine more months for his next chance, at the Masters in April. He finished a career-best solo second at Augusta National this past spring. He only needs to win a green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam.
“I’ve just got to keep putting myself in position, keep putting myself in there,” McIlroy said. “And whenever you put yourself in that shining light, you’re going to have to deal with setbacks and deal with failures. Today is one of those times. But I just have to dust myself off and come again and keep working hard and keep believing.”
Despite the disappointments in majors, McIlroy has played some of the best golf of his career this season. He has finished in the top 25 in 11 of 13 starts, including victories at the CJ Cup @ Summit in October and the RBC Canadian Open in June.
McIlroy said he’ll take the next three weeks off before playing in the first event of the FedEx Cup Playoffs at the FedEx St. Jude Championship in Memphis, Tennessee, on Aug. 11-14.
“I’m playing well,” McIlroy said. “Again, it’s one of the best seasons I’ve had in a long time. I want to finish the season off well. I want to finish the season off right. There’s still some golf to play. Major season is over unfortunately, but I still feel like there’s a little bit to play for.”