By the eighth, his cap was pulled low over his face, before his left hand ran back through his hair, all but knocking it off. By the 18th tee came a Xerox of the pose from four hours before: driver in his left hand, arm extending further left. If you can hear him, duck. He will be a Hall of Fame golfer at some point. If there’s a Hall of Fame for body language expressiveness, he will be a founding inductee. He must be a ringer in charades, an easy mark in Texas hold ’em.
“It was one of the toughest days on a golf course I’ve had in a long time,” McIlroy said.
He said it out loud because he was asked to assess his round. No need, really. His 5-foot-9 frame screamed it all day.
This was the US Open for almost anyone Saturday because if your name wasn’t Matt Fitzpatrick or Will Zalatoris, the combination of the Country Club’s inherent chicanery and winds that would wobble the USS Constitution left the field with its collective head in its hands.
McIlroy, though, is a special case in such circumstances and not just because he is a special player. If you want to know how the 33-year-old Northern Irishman is playing, take a five-second glance at him. The book is always open, and he will hand you reading glasses should you need them. If his puffed-out chest reaches the green 30 seconds before the rest of his body, he’s killing it. If he’s reduced to a bagful of slumped shoulders and palms on faces… well, you know. There’s no mystery.
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Saturday’s path to a 3-over-par 73 that dropped him from 4 under and one back to start the day to 1 under and three back by nightfall could have been interpreted in a number of fashions. Was the 20-foot par putt that needed a quarter more of a turn to save par bad luck — or what he deserved for missing the green? Was the six-footer he missed for a birdie at the seventh misfortune or a missed stroke? Was 73 just fine given he hit just 7 of 18 greens, or should he have hit more greens to produce a score lower than 73?
In sum: Was the day about leaving shots out there, or holding it together?
“I’m sort of going home thinking that I held this round together,” McIlroy said, “when it could have got away from me quickly.”
His standing three behind Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick, with only four other players between himself and the leaders, matters for McIlroy and for the Open. Every weekend at a major in which McIlroy’s name is on the leader board is presented as an opportunity for history. He has four of the shiniest trophies. One more would move him into a club that has just 19 members. Two more would tie him with Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino. Three more…
Stop. We have been doing this with McIlroy for more than a decade. After all this time, his legacy is a peculiar combination of secure and stagant. He is a strutting, slumping example of the talent and tenacity it takes to contend so often and the fortune and fortitude necessary to close even one of them out.
Given it is eight years and 28 majors since the last of his four titles — the 2014 PGA Championship — it’s tempting to think of McIlroy as a tease. Think of it this way: The leader board heading into Sunday’s final round is led by a pair of players looking for their first professional wins stateside — Zalatoris of Texas and Fitzpatrick of England — who would be deemed worthy, even if young. It includes the defending champion of this event, Jon Rahm, not to mention the newly minted Masters champ, Scottie Scheffler, who just happens to be the top-ranked player in the world.
And yet of the 11 players who will sleep Saturday night knowing they have completed 54 holes at even par or better, the major titles scoreboard reads thusly: McIlroy 4, Everyone Else 3.
“Look,” he told Irish radio before meeting with the international media, “I’m a great round away from winning another major championship.”
One great round is not his problem. Four great rounds has been. Recently, he has been scrutinized for his performance in majors not because he hasn’t contended, but in an odd way, for the way he has, At the Masters, his final-round 64 was thrilling and lifted him into a runner-up finish behind Scheffler, but it also led to head-scratching: Why was it preceded by two indifferent 73s and a 71? At the PGA Championship last month in Tulsa, he opened with 65 to lead, closed with 68 to secure a top-10 but sandwiched them around a 71 and a 74.
He is blessed with abilities and cursed by their existence, and his body contortions and facial expressions betray just that. After that final tee shot at 18, he slumped toward his ball, which he was sure was so far left he would be assessed a penalty shot.
“When I saw it up there, I was like, ‘Oh, no,'” he said.
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Instead, some good fortune: It was in a position near a grandstand, so he was granted relief. The result: The opportunity to drop, then sling a 150-yard draw around the corner. That he did was a reminder of why he’s so enthralling.
After he pulled that off, he was neither strutting nor slumped as he strolled back to the fairway. Rather, he was googly-eyed, almost discombobulated. That was his day, and that is this tournament.
“I’m always sort of trying to look at the positive side of things and be optimistic,” he said. “Yeah, in this game of golf, you need to be an eternal optimist.”
He laughed at that notion, then tossed his head back, something of an eyeroll. An eternal optimist, in this game and these conditions, with a major on the line eight years since you have won one? Rory McIlroy’s face can’t hide what an absurd notion that is.