The task for Rory McIlroy was daunting, but not impossible today as he headed out for the final round of the Emirates Australian Open at The Australian 84 minutes before the final group – and six shots behind.
A flash start was needed. Get into the big house at the top of the steep hill from the 18th green after setting a target, maybe five or six under, and sit in the air-conditioning and watch to see if it was enough to successfully defend the championship.
His moment of what proved to be madness a day earlier when he attempted to his second shot on the ninth out of the fescue grass and its base of twine netting (the latter deemed an integral part of the course) was still vivid in the minds of many here today.
McIlroy moved the ball just a few centimetres, and finally he took his medicine by taking a penalty drop two club lengths away to just get relief from that wretched grass. Further description is unnecessary, as it’s already been well documented.
The net result – a triple bogey seven – was a blow to his chances of a successful defence but not fatal, but then he compounded matters by taking double bogey on the very next holes.
Whatever possessed him to attempt that shot on the ninth? Sure, at 25, he’s still young, and at times impetuous, but it looked the sort of shot that you’d only attempt with your mates in a social outing at the local club with a few beers waiting at the 19th hole.
Why didn’t McIlroy’s long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald who has shared the Ulsterman’s four major victories with him just pick up the bag, leaving his player club-less, and walk back to the tee McIlroy to follow to hit his third off the tee?
While a group of media types were discussing the pros and cons, 1990 US PGA Champion Wayne Grady walked past and, having ear-wigged the conversation, said: “I would have been back to the tee in an instant. You could be in there for ever.”
Let’s indulge in a little mischievous speculation for a moment.
The other thing we notice about McIlroy this week is that he doesn’t appear as intense, or focused, as this time last year. Then, he was engaged to top tennis player Caroline Wozniaki, but he called the wedding earlier this year. No ties this time round.
Maybe he’s seen a little for of Sydney, which he says he loves, this time round.
Golfers since time immemorial have been known to have a good time off course during tournament week but still walked away with the cash and the trophy. Take Raymond Floyd for instance.
No, McIlroy is a true professional and surely his body language was all about his building frustration as all efforts to resurrect his chances were falling on the deaf ears of the golfing gods.
Today, McIlroy just couldn’t find any momentum in the early holes. No birdies to get the adrenalin flowing, just grinding to save his par. On the second, he holed a two-metre putt to do just that and, then on the third, the jumper lead he needed went begging when he lipped out from a touch over two metres. He shook his head in bewilderment – the hole had a goalkeeper.
On the short fourth, he again missed the green and this time managed to hole that same length putt as the third.
McIlroy is longer off the tee that most – put it down to his gym programme – and he smashed a monster down the par five fifth, but his second, a three wood or rescue club, hooked into the trees and pine chips left of the green.
His third shot out, just caught the top of the tallest tree, and fell into a bunker around 40 metres from the green. The resulting explosion actually hit the hole and came to rest less than two metres away. As he was he was putting a leaf, blown on the wind, caught his peripheral – and he missed the putt.
He swept the leaf away with his putter in disgust.
So, it was his first bogey for the day and his day was done save for playing on to salvage a little of his pride.
It wasn’t until the 18th hole that he made his first birdie of the day and he signed for a one-over par 72 to finish at two over par.
Even after his first four holes, McIlroy felt he was still in there with a chance, but it was the bogey on the fifth when he knew the inevitable. No way could he win.
Conditions were tough, tougher than any other day of the championship and rules officials were keeping a weather eye on the radar for any approaching storm.
But, the chap from Holywood, Northern Island still had a broad smile on his face when it was over.
“It was tough, I was going out there trying to get something going but with the pin positions and the wind it was just very hard to get the ball close to the hole. Anything under par today would have been a good score. I just couldn’t get anything going and I hit a few loose shots again,” McIlroy said after his round.
“It just wasn’t meant to be this year.”
Did he regret the decision on the ninth hole yesterday?
“Not at all. It’s fine. I was trying to play the shot I wanted to play and I just hit a bad shot. I played nine in level par this week – three birdies and a triple,” he said.
Well, we guess that’s one way of looking at it.
Despite what happened this week, it’s still be a phenomenal year for him – “Yeah, I’m not going to let what happened this week ruin the best year I’ve had,” he said. Yes, winning one major in a year would delight the majority of golfers. McIlroy won two – the British Open and PGA – and he regained the world No 1 ranking. He now needs the first major of the year – The Masters – to complete the career grand slam at such a tender year.
What happened this week is just a minor blip.
Will he be back next year?
“It depends on the schedule and where it’s going to be. I love playing in Australia, I always enjoy my time here and I had a wonderful time here this year … and last year. Hopefully it works again,” he replied.