Could the player groomed by the Irish golfing Union and poised three off the lead spring an ambush at Chambers Bay to win the US Open? It was one of many talking points ahead of the denouement none could predict. Neither would many have forecast that the golfer from the Emerald isle pawing the ground on the final day would be Shane Lowry.
No disrespect to Lowry, fine player that he is, or indeed the quartet sharing the overnight lead, but had Rory McIlroy been remotely proficient with the putter over the first three days, the engravers could have spent the final day on Puget Sound with their kids.
McIlroy was already back in his digs on Saturday watching Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Branden Grace wrestle with a course becoming ever more slippery as the day went on. Having turned, in his own words, a 65 into a 70 in the morning, it must have been some kind of torture absorbing the lessons of another insipid display on the greens.
It would not be so bad had McIlroy written himself out of the final day script with bad golf. That is mentally manageable, but to strike the ball as well as he ever has and to make no inroads against par must have been as excruciating to bear as it was to witness. If there were one comfort to take from the experience it was McIlroy’s refusal to buckle. In days of old the shoulders would drop if the balls didn’t and the day would quickly unravel.
“I’m pleased with how I’ve kept it going. But the way I feel like I’m playing, it’s a lot easier to do that than when you’re not hitting fairways and not hitting greens. I’m hitting great shots and great drives and giving myself chances the whole time. So it’s just hard to stay patient whenever I’m not holing anything. I feel, mentally, I’ve accepted most things this week, which is good.”
Even the great Spieth felt the heat with the putter on greens that morphed into something other than a golfing challenge. Four three-putts in his round of 71 on Saturday spoke of a course spiralling out of control. A green is either a green or it is not. Golf requires the putting surface to behave in a way that distinguishes it from the fairway. Here, those lines have become so blurred as to make a nonsense of the putting discipline.
While that does not wholly explain McIlroy’s ills, it was certainly a factor late in the day when the greens proved increasingly unreceptive to golf balls. Gary Player ripped into the layout in a remarkable rant at the start of the weekend, pointing out the philosophical problems at the heart of 115th US Open at Chambers Bay.
The thrust of his argument impaled the course designer, Robert Trent Jones Jnr, for producing a tournament that is not a test of golf, but chance. When the golfer is penalised for hitting good shots the game is up, he said. Golf can tolerate the odd bad bounce but when every stroke involves a random element it renders the craft and skill irrelevant and is therefore anti-golf. Heavy watering made the course more manageable for the early starters, a circumstance which played into the hands of McIlroy, who was just imperious off the tee.
None could complain about the way this place looks and in the seventh hole, Trent Jones has conjured a striking dogleg par four that climbs uphill more than five hundred yards with vast sandy wastes waiting to bury mistakes.
It played the hardest hole on the course on Saturday. McIlroy birdied it. The drive was epic, carrying more than 330 yards over the scrub, leaving a short iron in. Interestingly, the seventh green was altered significantly after the 2010 US Amateur Championship from the original layout in 2007. McIlroy remarked on how much better the putting surface was than others he likened to cauliflower.
Setting out eight off the lead, at four over par, McIlroy was not the biggest part of the final round conversation. The hope must be that the pain and frustration he has endured this week informs him a month hence when the finest players in the world reassemble at St Andrews for the Open Championship.
You will recall his opening 63 at the home of golf five years ago when the sun shone. The 80 carded the following day in a hooley took him out of the equation. The extremes are narrowing in McIlroy’s game, and there is little in the landscape of the Old Course in Fife that can’t be measured or understood. Tee boxes won’t change in elevation and greens will not mock properly hit shots.
McIlroy spent 20 minutes before his final round standing over putts of eight feet, the distance that troubled him most on Saturday, missing seven birdie chances inside 10 feet on the back nine. It seemed to be working to judge from a birdie at the second, for the second consecutive day, and fine par save at the fifth after finding sand.Reuse content