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A loss unlike any other: Rory McIlroy endures new level of major heartbreak

Short miss costs Rory U.S. Open, coveted 5th major
Watch the short missed putt from Rory McIlroy on the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2 that ultimately cost him the 2024 U.S. Open and his coveted fifth major championship.

PINEHURST, N.C. – There’s a fine line between heartbreak and hope.

The eternal optimist would call Rory McIlroy’s loss on Sunday at Pinehurst a productive, albeit painful, step toward something bigger and better, while the realist would lament another missed opportunity filled with countless bad breaks and even worse decisions.

As prying eyes descended on the U.S. Open runner-up, McIlroy had no interest in either distinction.

Thanks to the scoring-room camera there was no need to speculate: the Northern Irishman’s one-shot loss to Bryson DeChambeau left a mark that won’t heal anytime soon. His hasty exit as he piled his clubs into the back of his Lexus courtesy car and sped away from Pinehurst, left little room for ambiguity.

A career marked by incredibly dominant highs and equally crushing lows hit rock bottom on a steamy Sunday in the North Carolina sandhills.

For context, McIlroy’s implosion at the 2011 Masters – where he teed off in the final round with a four-stroke lead and in full flight, only to close with an 80 – holds the honor of “worst loss” in many minds, but the 124th U.S. Open somehow seemed worse.

In ’11, McIlroy was just 21 years old and had an infinitely promising career ahead of him. The loss was heartbreaking but he found a silver lining.

“This is my first experience at it, and hopefully the next time I’m in this position I’ll be able to handle it a little better. I didn’t handle it particularly well today, obviously, but it was a character-building day, put it that way,” he said on that Sunday at Augusta National. “I’ll come out stronger for it.”

For more context, McIlroy went on to win the U.S. Open two months after that meltdown and he quickly added three more major championships after that, proving that the road to glory is often paved with countless potholes.

There’s a lesson there, if the 35-year-old version has any interest in retrospection or self-examination, but as he raced out of the players’ parking lot McIlroy also didn’t seem interested in the nuances of defeat. Nor did he have any interest in speaking with the media, which leads only to speculation.

The 2024 Pinehurst Open was McIlroy’s best chance to end a decade-long drought in the majors and that’s not up for debate.

After starting the day three shots behind DeChambeau, McIlroy began his campaign with a statement birdie at the first hole and appeared to pull away from the field with three birdies in four holes starting at the ninth. His 5-footer for birdie at the 13th hole ignited the crowd and gave him what seemed at the time a commanding two-stroke lead with five holes to play.

In the decade since McIlroy won the 2014 PGA Championship, he’s had his share of brushes with Grand Slam greatness. He co-led through 54 holes at the 2022 Open in St. Andrews, but made only two birdies on Sunday and lost to Cam Smith. At last year’s U.S. Open, he was a shot back after three rounds and posted another 70 to finish second to Wyndham Clark.

At this point, it’s a pattern. Whatever the crime, whether he’s too aggressive on Sunday or too conservative, there’s been no answer to the question that’s dogged him for a decade.

Chamblee, McGinley debate cause of Rory's drought
Brandel Chamblee thinks Rory McIlroy has failed to win a major since 2014 because his swing isn't as good as it used to be. Paul McGinley thinks the drought is due to something more mental. They debate on Live From.

This isn’t a question of skillset. For the week at Pinehurst, he ranked first in strokes gained: off the tee, strokes gained: tee to green and second in driving distance. He even picked up shots on the field on the greens on Sunday (2.213), just not when it counted.

The No. 2 course proved to be a brilliant arena with McIlroy playing the role of tragic hero. He inexplicably bogeyed the par-3 15th hole after sending his tee shot long and into one the ubiquitous sandy areas, and then lost the tournament at the 16th hole. History will show that McIlroy three-putted from 24 feet at No. 16, but it was a missed 2 ½ footer that ultimately cost him. Before Sunday, McIlroy was 496-for-496 from putts inside 3 feet on the PGA Tour this year – 496-for-496.

McIlroy missed a pair of putts inside 4 feet over the final three holes and failed to win his first major in a decade.

The 18th hole provided the ultimate backdrop for McIlroy’s meltdown – a drive that found the sandy area left of the fairway, an approach deadened by wiregrass, and a chip that left a 4-footer for par that never had a chance, increasing the void on his major resume.

Unpacking this loss, arguably the worst of his career, will take time and it’s unlikely McIlroy, who closed in 69 on Sunday, is going to be OK with what happened anytime soon. But if he wanted a paradigm of hope, a sliver of light to cling to on a dark night, he could look to DeChambeau.

At last month’s PGA Championship, DeChambeau attempted a spirited final-round rally that included birdies at Nos. 13, 16 and 18 to finish at 20 under, which at the time was tied with Xander Schauffele. DeChambeau lost by a stroke at Valhalla but the stepping stone, an optimist would say, set the stage for Pinehurst.

“Rory is one of the best to ever play,” DeChambeau said on Sunday of McIlroy. “Being able to fight against a great like that is pretty special. For him to miss that putt [at No. 18], I’d never wish it on anybody. It just happened to play out that way.

“He’ll win multiple more major championships. There’s no doubt. I think that fire in him is going to continue to grow. I have nothing but respect for how he plays the game of golf because, to be honest, when he was climbing up the leaderboard, he was two ahead, I was like, uh-oh, uh-oh. But luckily things went my way today.”

Those words probably won’t give McIlroy solace, little would as he raced away from Pinehurst. It will take time for him to process the fine line between losing a major championship and getting beat. It’s the same fine line that leaves him somewhere between heartbreak and hope.