LOS ANGELES — Rory McIlroy got the sort of break most players need to win a U.S. Open. If only he could’ve made a putt or two to go with it.
The golf gods, to say nothing of the golf rulebook, gave McIlroy a chance to save par after his approach on the 14th hole came up short and embedded in the deep grass above a greenside bunker. But McIlroy missed the putt — a common theme Sunday — and made his only bogey of the day. That single shot cost him in a one-stroke loss to Wyndham Clark.
McIlroy shot even-par 70 — one birdie, 16 pars and that single bogey — to finish his four rounds at Los Angeles Country Club at 9-under 271. His drought in the majors is now at 33 tournaments, a dry spell that is nearing nine full years.
“I think the putter, I’ll rue some of the chances that I missed,” McIlroy said. “It was hard to get the ball really close all day. It was that and that wedge shot on 14, coming up a little short, those are the things I’ll rue today.”
He finished the day with 36 putts over 18 holes — no need for complex math there — and didn’t sink a single putt over 8 feet.
His attempt to tie things on the 18th green looked like most all of the birdie tries he had over a day in which he hit the ball as well as anyone from tee to green. It was a 40 footer that was tracking but drifted away at the end for a simple tap-in par.
But if there was a single moment that defined the day for McIlroy, it came on the par-5 14th. After driving into the left rough, he punched out to the fairway and had a 125-yard shot into the narrow green.
McIlroy pulled out a sand wedge but then felt the wind kick up. He went to a choked-down gap wedge instead. The approach came up short. He put both hands on his knees, bent down and stared at his caddie, Harry Diamond, in disbelief.
“I might have just had to wait an extra 15 or 20 seconds to let that little gust settle,” McIlroy said.
Instead, moments later, he was down on his knees near the bunker, desperately trying to find the ball that had disappeared in the gnarly grasses above the sand.
He found the ball embedded in the facing just above the bunker. In the past, an embedded ball that wasn’t in the fairway had to be played as it lied. But after a reworking of the rulebook in 2019, free relief is now granted for any ball plugged in any area other than sand.
McIlroy dropped above the bunker, 40 feet away in a perfectly workable lie. He chipped to 10 feet but missed the par putt. His only bogey of the day put him three behind Clark.
“I felt like my chance was sort of gone,” McIlroy said.
Clark wobbled with two bogeys down the stretch. But McIlroy, his putter still ice cold, couldn’t convert birdie tries from 22, 62, 33 or 40 feet over the last four holes.
“I can play free, I think I proved that today,” he said. “Just felt like my speed control was a little off with the putter. That’s probably why I didn’t make a birdie since the first.”
Indeed, the birdie on the short par-5 first was the only time he cashed in on any of the 15 greens he hit in regulation. Those 15 greens tied Jon Rahm for best in the fourth round.
For the week, McIlroy hit 59 greens. That was six more than anyone else in the field. What is often a formula for victory instead resulted in McIlroy’s third runner-up finish at a major. He will go to Hoylake next month for the British Open still without a major title since the 2014 PGA Championship.
This close call felt a little like the last one. Last year at St. Andrews, he shared the lead going into the final round. He made two birdies that day and finished two shots back. This time, he made one birdie and finished one shot back.
Someone asked if these close calls are exhausting for a player who ripped off four major titles in his first 25 appearances but remains stuck at four despite spending most of the past nine years among the top 10 players in golf.
“It is, but at the same time, when I do finally win this next major, it’s going to be really, really sweet,” he said. “I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”