Rory McIlroy and the U.S. Open he will never escape — even though he tried

PINEHURST, N.C. — Within seven minutes of Bryson DeChambeau’s ball landing in the cup, the ripping sound of tires skirting on pavement whipped through Pinehurst Resort as Rory McIlroy’s courtesy Lexus SUV pulled out of his 2011 U.S. Open champion parking place and drove away from the day he’ll never escape. He stared into the distance as his agents and caddie spoke around him. No interviews. The 35-year-old Northern Irishman simply tossed his clubs and workout bag into the trunk, slipped into the driver’s seat and threw it into reverse. The U.S. Open ended at 6:38 p.m. At 7:29 p.m., McIlroy’s Gulfstream 5 took off, leaving the Sandhills of North Carolina without his fifth major championship but with the collapse that will define him forever.

Just 90 minutes earlier, McIlroy strutted down the 14th fairway prepared to redefine his career. Ten years without a major. Ten years of pain and close calls, a man who won four majors by the time he was 25 then fell short again and again. And here he was, with five holes remaining at the U.S. Open, leading Bryson DeChambeau and the field by two strokes.

But Rory McIlroy did not win the 2024 U.S. Open.

Three bogeys and a pair of missed three-foot putts later, McIlroy lost it to DeChambeau. It will be remembered far more than any of his four wins.

Chewing a nutrition bar walking off the 14th tee, McIlroy leaned over to peak at the 13th green to his right. McIlroy had a two-shot lead because he had just birdied 13 as DeChambeau — playing in the final group as the 54-hole leader — had bogeyed No. 12. But DeChambeau put his drive safely on the par-4 13th with a putt for eagle, and McIlroy wanted to get a look. DeChambeau ultimately birdied to get back within one.

McIlroy entered Sunday at Pinehurst three shots back of DeChambeau. He was not supposed to win this, but he seemingly went and grabbed it. For 13 holes, we saw the version of McIlroy many pleaded for during the past decade. He looked like a killer, or some version of it. He opened with a birdie on the first hole and birdied Nos. 9, 10, 12 and 13 with lengthy putts. He was winning this major.

But golf is not a sport kind to the premature formation of narratives.

He parred No. 14. Then, he bogeyed the par-3 15th after overshooting the green, but that was acceptable. It was one of the hardest holes of the day, and DeChambeau bogeyed it too.

It was on 16 that the fear kicked in. McIlroy had a simple-seeming par putt from two feet, six inches. And he missed. It wasn’t really close, rounding the left edge. Yet McIlroy remained on a mission to stay calm. The instant it missed, he flattened both his palms to give the “calm down” signal. Yet throughout the Pinehurst No. 2 a familiar sentiment was whispered. Not again.

And no matter how hard he tried to steel himself, McIlroy sent his tee shot on the par-3 17th into the left-side bunker. Credit to him, he hit a beautiful, soft pitch out from the sand and saved par.

But what happened next signaled it might be over far before it truly was.

McIlroy put his putter back into his bag, leaned over to grab his driver and his eyes bulged into a fearful grimace. The game plan was out the window. The thoughts that got him here were gone. He was flying blind.

See, McIlroy had a plan this week. He talked about it nearly every day from Tuesday through Saturday. Boring golf. Disciplined golf. Bogeys will happen, so never get flustered. “Just trying to be super stoic,” McIlroy said Tuesday. “Just trying to be as even-keeled as I possibly can be.” And he was for 71 holes, through it all. His tournament could be defined by how impressive that demeanor was, making the kind of ugly, tough par saves he historically missed.



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But somewhere between 16 and 18, McIlroy stared into the headlights and wasn’t prepared to look away. He was now a different golfer. His eyes looked like they were playing through each heartbreaking scenario, in turn putting them into fruition. Maybe then, we should have known.

So, for some inexplicable reason, McIlroy pulled out driver. Why, oh why, did he want his driver? The day before, he hit a 3 wood and left himself only a 133-yard wedge shot in. There was no need for extra length on the 449-yard hole. Maybe McIlroy, likely the best driver of the golf ball in recent memory, thought this would be his signature moment. Maybe he was chasing even though he was tied. Either way, McIlroy launched a drive too far left — into Pinehurst’s infamous native area, just in front of a patch of wiregrass. He had no play. He punched out an awkward little roller up to the front of the green. And again, his short game came to play with a nice little chip to three feet, nine inches from the 18th pin.

He missed. Again.

It was as if Bill Buckner let a second ball go through his legs. There is no explanation nor any defense. McIlroy’s short, softly hit putt broke right immediately and rode the right edge of the hole. Rory McIlroy had just bogeyed three of the final four holes to hand away the 2024 U.S. Open, giving Bryson DeChambeau room to earn it with an incredible up and down out of the 18th bunker to par and take the title. If McIlroy made both three-foot putts, he wins the U.S. Open. If he makes one, he goes to a playoff. But he made neither.

McIlroy signed his scorecard in the scoring tent and watched the finish on TV with the slightest, faintest sense of hope. He ate another nutrition bar during DeChambeau’s bunker shot. His hat sat loosely crooked on top of his head for the final putt with hands on his hips. He took one last nervous, sick-to-his-stomach gulp down his throat before the putt fell in. When it did, he turned, looked down, swallowed once more and exited out the door behind him. He gathered his belongings and made his way to the Lexus.

The golfer known for his ability to speak eloquently on all subjects declined to speak to media. There was nothing left to say.

McIlroy’s career began with a collapse. He was just 23 and entered Sunday at the 2011 Masters with a four-shot lead but shot a disastrous 80 to fade away. People will always remember that day, but he won the U.S. Open two months later. It was the first of four majors in as many years. He seemed on pace to chase the greats.

He’s never won a major again.

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Rory McIlroy had a two-shot lead with five holes to play Sunday. (Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

But unlike so many other sports figures who burned bright early only to fade out, McIlroy’s game didn’t dissipate. He’s remained one of the three or four best players in the world for most of these last 10 years. He’s won 26 PGA Tour events. He’s finished top 10 at 21 of the 37 majors since. By most metrics, the past three years have been his best. He just couldn’t win. Most wouldn’t have even called him a choker. First, he just got off to a bad starts and finished hot. Then, the last three years, somebody else grabbed it from him. At the 2022 Open Championship, he shot a perfectly fine Sunday 70. He just couldn’t hit the 50-50 birdies, and Cameron Smith did to shoot a 64 and steal it. At the 2023 U.S. Open, he entered one back of Wyndham Clark. They shot the same Sunday score. He didn’t hand these away.

The 2024 U.S. Open at Pinehurst? Rory McIlroy choked.

McIlroy has made some enemies in his time, and two of the people he’s bumped heads with most are Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson, two players as synonymous for their epic collapses as they are for their eight combined majors. Norman is most famous for his six-shot 1996 Masters disaster. Mickelson famously double-bogeyed the 18th hole at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot to give it to Geoff Ogilvy. Now, McIlroy will live forever with those two men.

There aren’t many comparisons in sports to the path of McIlroy. There aren’t other athletes or team dynasties that won multiple titles immediately, stayed at the top of the sport but became known as chokers at the end of their run. The Patriots won three more titles after the Super Bowl losses to the Giants. The core of the 2004 Yankees was aging, and they won again five years later. Jordan Spieth didn’t give majors away after his third major before the age of 24 — his play declined.

The hardest part with McIlroy is always thinking he might get the next one. He is still that good. He still has a runner-up finish at a major each of the past three years. And there’s this idea that if he keeps putting himself in contention, the cards will eventually fall his way.

But on Sunday, something changed. McIlroy is 35 now, and maybe the muscle memory has faded over the last decade. How to put your entire dreams into something and have it work out. How to prove a narrative wrong or hit the perfect shot with thousands of fans living and dying with every swing.

Rory McIlroy sped off out of the Pinehurst Resort parking lot early Sunday evening not just a man in heartbreak. He drove off as forever the man who missed those two putts.

(Top photo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

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