ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – One bad round. One completely, utterly awful round.
Take that away, and Rory McIlroy’s walk up the 18th fairway Sunday at the British Open might have been triumphant.
“I couldn’t help but think about Friday going up the last hole there,” McIlroy said after shooting a 68 that moved him into a tie for third. “You know, if I had just sort of stuck in a little bit more on Friday and held it together more, it could have been a different story.”
McIlroy finished eight strokes behind winner Louis Oosthuizen. Take away the 80 he posted Friday and give him a score in the 60s – as he had the other three days – and it explains why he wasn’t thrilled with his best finish at a major.
McIlroy’s best finish at the British Open was a tie for 42nd three years ago. He failed to make the cut at either the Masters or the U.S. Open this year.
“I knew that I had a good chance coming in here, and it was nice to sort of be there for a while,” he said. “I’m still a bit disappointed, to be honest, because I know if I could have played anywhere decent on Friday, I could have been a lot closer to the lead. I’m not saying that I could have got to 17 under, but I definitely could have been contending for second place, anyway.”
With Lee Westwood, the No. 3 player in the world still nursing a bum leg, McIlroy arrived at St. Andrews as the best hope to end the United Kingdom’s losing streak at its own Open. No golfer from Britain or Northern Ireland has hoisted the claret jug since Paul Lawrie in 1999, and Nick Faldo was the last Englishman to win, claiming the last of his three Open titles in 1992.
Though only 21, McIlroy is the kind of precocious talent who could carry the continent for a generation. The Northern Irishman turned pro in 2007, earned his European card without going to Q-school and broke into the top 10 in the world before his 21st birthday. He claimed his first PGA Tour win in May, bringing Quail Hollow to its knees with a 62 on Sunday
McIlroy tied the major-championship record by shooting 63 in pristine conditions Thursday morning. But with the wind howling and the Old Course showing its considerable bite, he blew up with the 80 on Friday afternoon.
“When you start off shooting 63 in any golf tournament, you fancy your chances going into the next three days,” McIlroy said. “It just so happened to be it got very windy on Friday, and I just didn’t deal with it very well. … I hadn’t played in wind like that for a long time. So it was a bit of a new experience.”
No player had ever shot such a high score after going so low the day before in a major tournament. As the strokes piled up, McIlroy began looking his age, rolling his eyes, slumping his shoulders, kicking the grass. It could have started him on a major meltdown, the kind that can linger for months.
Instead, McIlroy went back to his hotel room, ordered room service and went to bed. On Saturday, he came out and shot a 69.
“For three rounds, I was 16 under par, so it’s in there. It’s definitely in there,” McIlroy said. “It’s just a pity about Friday.”
But don’t expect him to keep wondering, “What if?”
“It’s not going to give me nightmares,” he said. “I was 16 under for three rounds of golf around St. Andrews in the Open, and just one bad round. It’s fine.”
YOUNG GUN: The older players can relax. Jin Jeong won’t be taking their money for a few more months.
The only amateur to make the cut at this British Open tied for 14th, a finish that would have earned him almost $88,000 if he was a professional. Though Jeong obviously has the game to compete with the big boys, he said he’s put his plans to turn pro in September on hold.
“I can play the Masters next year, and I really want to play that tournament,” the British Amateur champion said. “So I’ll probably stay amateur until then.”
The 20-year-old has an appreciation for golf’s grandest courses – he said playing St. Andrews was a “dream come true.” But it also means more sacrifice for him and his family.
Like many young South Korean golfers, he headed for Australia in the winter to work on his game when he was about 13. He made the move to Melbourne permanently about four years ago, leaving his parents and sister behind in Korea. He split time between living with a local Korean family and his coach, Trevor Flakemore.
Six months ago, his mother and sister relocated to Melbourne, a move that coincides with a sharp improvement in his play. But his father’s job required him to stay in Korea.
“That’s why my dad is not here. He’s working,” Jeong said. “He was going to come here to watch, but his business is going really busy, so he had to stay. It’s a shame.”
Jeong hits monster drives – when he outdrove PGA champion Y.E. Yang during a practice round recently, he posted on Facebook that it was the “happiest day in my life!” – and he drove the 18th green for a second straight day. Unlike Saturday, he made a 25-footer to close out his first British Open with an eagle.
The crowd, which took a liking to the youngster with the big smile, was delighted.
“All week I played really well, and all the crowds gave me claps,” Jeong said. “All week I can’t forget.”
RED, WHITE AND BLUE: The British Open leaderboard looked like it was borrowed from a European Tour event.
The Americans have owned the claret jug lately, having won seven of the last 10 coming into St. Andrews. They also hold down four of the top five spots in the latest world rankings.
But the champion Sunday was Louis Oosthuizen, a South African. The rest of the top five hail from England (Lee Westwood and Paul Casey), Northern Ireland (Rory McIlroy) and Sweden (Henrik Stenson). Not until the seventh place is there an American, and no, the name isn’t Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.
Sean O’Hair and Nick Watney were the only Americans in the top 10 on Sunday. Woods tied for 23rd. Mickelson, who could have taken over the No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career with a win on the Old Course, tied for 48th. Neither was ever in contention.
“I’m not going to win all of them,” Woods said. “I’ve lost a lot more than I’ve won.”
The results at St. Andrews are part of a trend that could spell trouble for the Americans at the Ryder Cup, which will be played in Wales in October. Golfers from Britain and Northern Ireland won three straight PGA Tour events last month and four of five, including Graeme McDowell’s win at the U.S. Open.
Of the top 25 at St. Andrews, 13 were European players.
“We’re going to have a great team,” England’s Paul Casey said. “It doesn’t guarantee a victory, but I think we’ll be pretty good.”
Europe has won five of the last seven Ryder Cups.
HALLOWEEN COSTUME: John Daly finally has some competition for worst outfit.
Rickie Fowler did his best imitation of a giant pumpkin in the final round of the British Open on Sunday, decked out in hazard-cone orange from head to toe. Shoes, pants, belt, necklace, cap – even his Rolex had orange accents.
“I went to Oklahoma State,” Fowler said, explaining the reason for his Day-Glo outfit. “Not many people wear orange. It’s a good way to stand out.”
Actually, Fowler didn’t need any help for that. He finished his first British Open in a tie for 14th at 4 under after posting his second 67 of the week Sunday. He also made one of the best shots of the day, holing a putt of almost 130 feet from off the green for birdie on the 17th hole. Fowler tossed the ball into the crowd after he fished it out of the cup.
“That was pretty cool,” he said. “I think it’s the longest putt I’ve ever made.”
A little payback, too.
The PGA Tour rookie had only played two other majors before coming to St. Andrews, tying for 60th at the 2008 U.S. Open and missing the cut last year. He shot a 79 on the Old Course on Thursday thanks, in part, to a double-bogey on 17 after he four-putted from off the green.
Scrambling just to make the cut, Fowler rebounded with a 67 on Friday. He was below par each of his last three days, and had just two bogeys – none Sunday.