Sports

What Rory McIlroy Won

In losing the Open Championship, he cemented himself as golf’s new people’s champion.

Rory McIlroy tips his cap.
Rory McIlroy, the people’s champion (is not the Open champion). ANDY BUCHANAN/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy was the pre-tournament betting favorite at the 150th Open Championship. He was in second place after the first round, third place after the second, and in a tie for the lead after the third, when he and Viktor Hovland were a full four shots clear of anyone else. He was the solo leader on Sunday, after he birdied the fifth hole at the Old Course at St. Andrews to get separation from Hovland. He did not make any big mistakes to let it slip away. And yet, somehow, the Claret Jug didn’t belong to McIlroy on Sunday evening.

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Golf numbers maestro Justin Ray says this weekend’s Open was the first time in the history of recorded stats that a player had a 54-hole major lead, hit every green in regulation in the last round, and didn’t win. You may take that with a grain of salt because some of the greens at the Old Course are literally the size of football fields. Still, that helps capture the degree of devastation for the Northern Irishman, whose 2-under 70, by comparison to Aussie Cameron Smith’s 8-under 64, was a knife brought to a golf gunfight. (McIlroy finished a spiritual second but an actual third, as Cameron Young leapfrogged him with an eagle on the 72nd hole to get to 19 under par for the week, a shot ahead of Rory and a shot behind the other, victorious Cameron.)

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In a much different respect—and one that he will not get a trophy for—the Open did indeed belong to McIlroy. Either all of Scotland was rooting for him, or NBC was pumping up the crowd noise every time he hit a decent shot this weekend. After his most sublime shot of the tournament, a hole-out from the sand on Saturday, the golf course went berserk. Standing on the next tee, Dustin Johnson and Scottie Scheffler could only grin amid the frenzy. (“How can you not root for Rory?” Scheffler, the world No. 1, would say after the round.) On Sunday morning, local support for McIlroy transcended this earthly plain:

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Alas, this was not the week for Rory to end a major championship drought that will now stretch to its ninth year come 2023. But it was the week for a different kind of coronation. It is now obvious, if it wasn’t already, that he is the closest thing golf has to a standard-bearer, the player who can rile up a crowd like nobody else, right as the only other player (or players) who could pull that off are exiting stage left. There will never be another Tiger Woods, or even another Phil Mickelson. But St. Andrews settled the question of who will take up the mantle as the most adored player alive who can still contend to win the sport’s biggest events.

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Since 1995 or shortly thereafter, that has been Woods’ real estate. There are no roars like the ones golf crowds bestow on Tiger, and they’ve continued to echo even as he has aged. Mickelson has had a strong foothold as The People’s Golfer, something that’s always been awkward and only got more so as he’s fallen head over heels for the Saudi government’s new golf tour. But the main reason Mickelson can’t be the fans’ champion anymore is that he is bad now, no longer a threat even to make noise at majors, much less win them. To the contrary, it was not unreasonable to think that Tiger could still make a run in an ideally situated major like this one—on a course where he’d won a few times and that doesn’t have many steep inclines for him to walk. But Woods missed the cut after two of the uglier major rounds of his career, and he acknowledged the obvious afterward: that at 46 now, he might not play another Open at the Old Course. He got emotional on his last walk up the 18th fairway, and why wouldn’t he?

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“The warmth and the ovation at 18, it got to me,” he told a throng of reporters a few minutes later. One of them asked him when he might play next, and Woods said what was obvious: “I have nothing, nothing planned. Zero. Maybe something next year. I don’t know. But nothing in the near future. This is it.”

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Golf crowds need someone to rally behind. At St. Andrews, McIlroy filled the void. The only thing he could not provide on Sunday was a big moment to holler about. He didn’t make a putt from outside routine range all afternoon. The crowd around the 18th green stirred one last time when he addressed his ball for a prayer pitch-in try to tie Smith, but it wasn’t to be. That he did not win was a gigantic bummer. But the crushingness of that defeat might actually help cement him as the next guy for golf fans to live and die with on the most important Sunday afternoons.

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While Rory will never be Tiger, he has been somewhere between golf fans’ peripheral awareness and central focus for almost his entire life. As noted on Sunday by No Laying Up’s D.J. Piehowski, McIlroy was, like Tiger, a precocious child star and an ascendant amateur. He was 21 when he melted down on Sunday at the Masters in 2011, and had just turned 22 when he rebounded to win a U.S. Open that summer.* He won a few more majors after that and, since then, has known only disappointment at these tournaments. His personal life became big tabloid news, especially when, still a 20-something, he broke off his engagement to Caroline Wozniacki. Recently, he has been the PGA Tour’s most effective spokesman against the Saudis’ rival tour, and he has sometimes, though certainly not always, made a moral stand of his opposition to it. (That outspokenness has probably done more to burnish his credentials with the media and the most plugged-in fans than the galleries, though.)

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He has been shockingly introspective in public for an athlete of his stature, granting us windows into how early-career golf travel left him homesick and fame left him empty. He has cried in at least a few post-round interviews, most famously after his European team lost the Ryder Cup in 2021. None of it is to ascribe any special morality to a person most of us do not actually know, but that’s just the point: McIlroy has made fans feel like they know him, because he’s been not just visible but vulnerable for so long.

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That vulnerability makes him an attractive man to root for in these moments. If you watch McIlroy through that lens, you made note of how he reacted to that hole-out eagle on Saturday. He looked for a second like he would explode in celebration, then restrained himself with body language that was at once whispering and yelling, “There’s still a long way to go.”

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Who could possibly want to see Rory get hurt? Why is the personal comfort of this mega-rich, mega-accomplished golfer of any consequence to anyone? I don’t have a good answer, but I can’t deny that I root for the guy. It’s a little different from the vibe Tiger inspired, which was one of hoping a destroyer would destroy. But the result is the same, which is that lots of people want to see one particular golfer beat the rest.

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Rory did get hurt this weekend: He lost a chance to win this milestone 150th Open and to end his major drought. Smith played a torrid round on Sunday, but McIlroy lost 1.25 strokes to the field on the day just with his putting. The question in every situation like this one is, did the winner win it or did the loser lose it? The answer at St. Andrews was a little bit of both. But Rory didn’t seem to fret too much. He said he’d lost to a better player and seemed at relative peace given the chance he had just missed.

“Yeah, I’ll rue a few missed sort of putts that slid by. But it’s been a good week overall. I can’t be too despondent because of how this year [has gone] and this year’s going. I’m playing some of the best golf I’ve played in a long time. So it’s just a matter of keep knocking on the door, and eventually one will open,” he told the gathered press.

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McIlroy has talked a lot about how having his own family now has made golf disappointments easier to weather. While that is the sports cliche to end all sports cliches, maybe Rory means it. He didn’t look despondent in the way he surely would have eight years ago. So, maybe he doesn’t need the glowing embrace of tens of thousands of people wherever he goes. But he has it anyway, to an extent that had long seemed unlikely for any golfer not named Tiger Woods.

Correction, July 17, 2022: This piece originally misstated the order of Rory McIlroy’s 2011 Masters collapse and U.S. Open victory.

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