When you’re stranded at the bottom of a tide lost for light or colour, the only direction heeded is up. And, after Rory McIlroy’s apocalyptic unravelling that started on the first-tee of The Open and ended staring into an abyss on the 18th on the opening day, the Northern Irishman produced a brave and brilliant performance to claw himself back to the precipice on Friday, but ultimately fell agonisingly short of making it into the weekend.
Starting at the very depths of the leaderboard in 147th place and freed from the shackles of pressure, McIlory surged to five-under-par through the first 12 holes and rapidly a damp afternoon suddenly became cloaked in belief. A bogey on 13 threatened disaster, the immediate bounce-back on 14 promised the improbable, and a tremendous birdie putt from 12-feet on the par-3 16th dragged him to within tantalising reach of safety.
He required one birdie from Portrush's fearsome closing two holes, but after a fantastic recovery from the fescue on the 17th, his putt slipped to the low-side with slow-motion cruelty and it was there that the window of opportunity closed.
On the 18th, urged on by a rapturous amphitheatre of support and a nation palpably willing him on through their TV screens, he dragged his pitch shot into the basin below the left-hand side of the green. The chip never threatened the hole, instead stopping five-or-so feet from it. His playing partners, Gary Woodland and Paul Casey, cleared up first as though it were to win a major rather than survive it and, in that moment, even if it ultimately proved redundant, it struck that aura too.
In front of a wall of noise, the ball rattled the back of the hole with a confidence that had deserted McIlroy so astonishingly the previous day to finish on +2. A six-under-par 65 equalled the best score of the day but couldn't close the final yard.
It was a cruel and heartbreaking end. But even though it wasn’t enough, it was a showing of courage he desperately needed to bring light to the memories of an event he'd hoped would bring so much more and ended with a hollow feeling of what might otherwise have been.
“Part of me is very disappointed not to be here for the weekend,” McIlroy said afterwards. “Yesterday gave me a mountain to climb but I dug in and showed good resilience. It’s going to hurt for a bit. I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time. I didn’t play my part but everyone in Northern Ireland came out to watch me and played theirs.”
Fortunes weren’t so bleak for a man born a few hundred miles south of the border. Shane Lowry, who trailed overnight leader JB Holmes by one shot at the start of the day, began his round at the eye of an afternoon storm and promptly conjured one of his own, birdieing the first three holes to immediately take a share of the lead. The son of County Offaly, with a gruff lumberjack’s beard and a clover marking his ball, had missed the cut in his last four Open appearances prior to this week and and spent the eve of the tournament in a quiet corner of the nearby Bushmills Inn with his coach trying to arrest a jangle of nerves.
Two evenings later and he is the co-leader of The Open Championship.
If the beginning was blindingly simple, the back-nine quickly descended into a trigger-happy Cohen tale of true grit. Where everything had been so easy, adding another two birdies to make the turn in just 31, the hole shrunk down again. Wayward drives found the gorse to either side of the fairway, approach shots trickled over banks and into bunkers, and it was only by way of the deftest touch around the greens that the Claran warded off capitulation. In the end, he was pegged back by dampening bogeys on 14 and 18 but they were an acceptable sacrifice and once his adrenaline has settled, they will do little to blight his confidence.
“There’s not too many days like that on the golf course. It’s hard to describe,” Lowry said. “Look, I’m obviously going to be thinking about it [winning] tonight. There’s no point in shying away from it. I’m in a great position. But, my God, have we got a long way to go. There’s two rounds of golf on this golf course against the best field in the world.”
Another late tee time beckons with Lowry starting alongside Holmes in Saturday’s final group, after the arduously slow-playing Kentuckian enacted another fine rendition of swinging in – and at – the rain with a vast repertoire of practice swings, backwards shuffles and revolted reactions en route to a four-under-par 68. Holmes may be one of the worst perpetrators of sedative play but, in his defence, he is hardly the only culprit.
There was no such stomach for a similar fight-back from a beleaguered Tiger Woods who bore scant resemblance to the man who reclaimed glory at Augusta in April, other than the afflicting back pain. He carded a worthy one-under-par round, but never once looked to have the want nor strength to pull himself back from the precipice and admitted, after waving goodbye to a rousing cheer on the 18th green, that he “just wanted to go home and get away from it all”.
But while the tournament has been stricken of its two grandest names, it is by no means short of contenders. Tommy Fleetwood produced another cerebral round to sit just one back of the lead, while Lee Westwood resurrected days of old to match his compatriot at seven-under-par. Brooks Koepka looms just one shot further, primed to launch another weekend assault.
He is joined by a resurgent Jordan Spieth, who took advantage of the early morning sunshine and a temporary share of the lead, as well as Justin Rose whose four-under-par 68 drifted under the radar on a day hope drowned just inches from the surface.
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