After Third Round, McIlroy Ponders What Might Have Been

2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy had a chance to make some early noise on Saturday, but his even-par 70 will be remembered for letting the opportunity slip away. (USGA/J.D. Cuban)
2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy had a chance to make some early noise on Saturday, but his even-par 70 will be remembered for letting the opportunity slip away. (USGA/J.D. Cuban)

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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – For the top-ranked golfer in the world, Rory McIlroy arrived at the 115th U.S. Open a little in the shadows.

There were a few reasons. Jordan Spieth would be trying to win his second major championship in a row. Phil Mickelson was continuing his long, so far futile, quest for a U.S. Open title. Many eyes were on Tiger Woods, to see if he could find any semblance of past glory.

Out hours before the leaders in Saturday’s third round after shooting two 72s, McIlroy had a great opportunity to become a relevant part of the plot at Chambers Bay.

It was an opportunity the four-time major champion let slip away.

On moving day, thanks to a balky putter, he ran in place.

 “I feel like I turned a 65 into a 70 today,” McIlroy said after shooting the latter number that left him at 4-over 214 after 54 holes. “Just real disappointed.”

Few players who teed off in the morning were able to get anything going. McIlroy had every chance to be an exception. He played a bogey-free outward nine, with birdies at Nos. 2 and 7 getting him to 2 over through 45 holes. The solid start helped him forget his poor finish to the second round, when he dropped three strokes over the last two holes to fall nine off the lead.

“I had a chance today to go out and try and shoot a good score and get myself somewhat back into it,” McIlroy said. “And for half of the round today it looked like I would. And it was just another disappointing finish.”

McIlroy’s frustrations began on the par-4 10th, where he lipped out a 4-footer for birdie. He followed that by three-putting the 11th for a bogey. He missed a 6-foot birdie on the 12th hole, and from 14 and 10 feet for birdies on the next two holes. Following a bogey on No. 15, he left himself with only a 43-yard approach on the 16th after a huge drive. But his pitch rolled back off the front of the green. After missing an 8-footer for birdie on the par-3 17th, he finally made a putt – from 12 feet, for par – on No. 18.

His arms went up as if he had won something, when in fact he knew what he had lost on the greens in the previous two hours or so.

“It’s me,” McIlroy said, refusing to blame his putting on the condition of the greens, “but then whenever you start to miss a couple you start to get a little tentative. You start to doubt yourself. You start to doubt the greens a little bit. And then it just sort of snowballs from there. I holed a few nice ones early on, but once I missed a couple it got into my head and couldn't really get out of it.”

If he is to mount some kind of miracle charge in Sunday’s final round, McIlroy knows what has to change.

“I've hit it as well as I can,” he said.  “And I've given myself plenty of chances. Just try to do the same thing and try to play the birdie-able holes better. I made par on 12 today, par on 18. There are chances that you need to take advantage of out here.”

That means making putts on greens that have perplexed many in the field.

“They are what they are – everyone has to putt on them,” McIlroy said. “It's all mental. Some guys embrace it more than others, and that's really the way it is.”

McIlroy will be teeing off earlier than he would like on a major Sunday. Wasting strokes won’t be an option if he has any hope of winning his second U.S. Open.

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.