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Rory McIlroy’s gutsy up-and-down on final hole may have saved his Open chances

HOYLAKE, England – Unless he was perusing Twitter on Thursday morning, Rory McIlroy couldn’t have possibly known the historical stakes of his 10-foot par putt late Thursday at The Open.

But pick your favorite stat.

Maybe it’s the fact that all but two of the past 52 Open winners have been within five shots of the lead after the opening round.

Or perhaps it’s this one: 23 consecutive Open winners have been at or within that magic number after Day 1.

And that’s exactly the precarious position, five shots back, that McIlroy found himself Thursday after a pair of back-nine birdies on a day that proved trickier than many anticipated. The past two winning totals here at Royal Liverpool have been at least 17 under par, and yet the leading score, first held by amateur Christo Lamprecht and later matched by Tommy Fleetwood and Emiliano Grillo, had never delved deeper than 5-under 66.

Full-field scores from the 151st Open Championship

After two mighty lashes with his 2-iron, McIlroy had intentions of a closing birdie on the 620-yard par-5 finishing hole. But after landing near the green, his ball began veering toward the series of deep bunkers that front the left portion.

“You’re sort of riding your luck at that point,” he said.

And a good break, this was not. McIlroy’s second shot tumbled into the front-left quadrant, pressed tight against the riveted face. If he could play straight toward the flag, he considered that option only briefly, because he then spun around and aimed toward the grandstand behind him. The crowd groaned. Another player had been stymied by those dastardly bunkers.

The grounds crew here has shaped the bottom of the bunkers to be completely flat, preventing the balls from rolling down into the center for a straightforward splash onto the green. So balls will trickle into the front few feet of the sand, restricting a player’s backswing. They’ll skip into the front, forcing players to take an almighty hack against the stacked sod and hope that the ball shoots vertically enough to escape. Or, in McIlroy’s and so many other players’ case, the ball will wedge into the corners of the sharp bunkers, eliminating any play toward the flag. Just before him, McIlroy’s playing partner, Jon Rahm, had no choice but to play backward.

“I haven’t seen the bunkers like this at all,” said Matthew Jordan, the local hero who hit the opening tee shot at the 151st Open and has played here hundreds, if not thousands, of times. “I don’t know who’s annoyed the greenskeeper, but they’re just so flat and they’re so penal. You just can’t hit it in any bunkers whatsoever.

“We know how penal fairway bunkers are, but even the greenside bunkers this week you can drop two shots just like that.”

That’s the prospect McIlroy faced as he settled into his stance for his third shot. Aiming toward the grandstand, 90 degrees away from the flag, he took a full swing but didn’t come close to generating enough height, his ball smacking into the face of the bunker and plopping back down into the sand.

Though fortunate to avoid his footmarks, his problems were just beginning. Now his ball was just a few feet from the left edge – not far enough away for him to assume a normal stance. He stepped in, then stepped out, trying to get comfortable. Finally, he settled on a doable but risky option: anchor his right leg in the sand and then, while awkwardly stretching his groin, drape his left leg outside the bunker. The crowd cheered at his ingenuity.

Now needing an up-and-down to save par, McIlroy chopped down on the back of the ball – and just barely squeezed it out over the front lip. His shot landed on the collar and rolled past the flag, settling 10 feet behind the cup. The spectators roared.

How important was that upcoming par putt?

Well, the history was clear. For nearly the past quarter-century, at least, it has meant the difference between winning and losing. Back in 2014, McIlroy led wire to wire at The Open, beginning with his opening 6-under 66. That was no longer feasible. Right now, he was simply trying to scratch out a 5.

McIlroy stepped in, took one last look, and then poured the 10-footer into the middle of the cup. His fist pump and steely demeanor revealed more than anything he said post-round.

Sure, he explained later, he wouldn’t have been happy if he walked off the green with a bogey. Not after the two pure shots he hit into the green. Not after his back-nine grind. Not after his five hours of patience.

But that putt changed his outlook – if not, potentially, his fortunes, if recent Open history is any indication.

After a sloppy start that included a missed 3-footer on the eighth hole, McIlroy battled back with a 40-foot bomb on 14 and a sand-save birdie on 15 to salvage an even-par round of 71 that left him — yes – five shots off the early lead at Hoylake.

“I’m still right in there,” he said.

And the Open record books prove it.