Rory McIlroy finds one of his very best rounds not enough to survive in Open

A most bittersweet moment this and, when it was over, Rory McIlroy almost seemed unsure whether it had been a victory or defeat. He followed one of the very worst rounds of his career, the error-strewn 79 he shot on day one, with one of the very best, a 65 studded with six birdies, rich with brilliant drives, chips and putts. Add them both together and he had a total of 144, two over par, and one sorry shot away from making the cut and playing the weekend. It was, he said, “one of the most fun rounds of golf” he had ever played and it left him he feeling a weird mix of disappointment, pride and gratitude.

He was not the only one. Almost every last man, woman and child on the course watching him felt similar things. They roared McIlroy around and by the time he reached the back nine they were sprinting on ahead of him and his ball, hundreds of them running pell-mell from one hole to the next to try and get themselves a better view of whatever it was he was about to do. He rewarded them with three back-to-back birdies on the 10th, 11th and 12th and then made them suffer a bogey on the par-three 13th where, full of adrenaline, he dropped his tee-shot in a pot bunker.

That made them cheer only louder. McIlroy pulled it back right away at the 14th with a 15ft birdie putt but missed another opportunity at the next, where, having smashed a drive out so far that his second shot was only 89 yards shy, he managed to pick out a greenside bunker. He still scrambled away with a par.

The equation, then, was that he needed to make two birdies on the last three holes. He got one of them right away at the tricky par-three 16th. That was the hard part. But he then blew the easy bit at the straightforward 17th, where he lashed his drive wide right and had to scramble up and down.

So he came to the 18th tee with everything hanging on whether he could make a birdie on Royal Portrush’s last, and hardest, hole. His drive left him every chance. It landed in the middle of the fairway, 200 yards shy. And then he hit the shot that finished it. The ball faded left, rolled into a swale on the short side of the hole. He needed something miraculous now. The crowd, packed tight in the great horseshoe grandstand that surrounds the green, believed in him but he knew it was going to be an impossible shot. He pulled off his cap and waved it to them as he walked on to the green and it seemed to be in farewell as much as thanks.

It must have been the greatest reception ever given to a man chasing a share of 70th place. “It’s a moment I envisaged for the last few years,” McIlroy said after he had putted out that last par. “It just happened two days early.” He was overcome by it all, as if he had only just realised how much he meant to them and they to him. “To see everyone out there sort of cheering on one cause, cheering for the same thing, was pretty special. And that thing was me, fortunately,” he said. “As much as I came here at the start of the week saying I wanted to do it for me, you know, by the end of the round there today I was doing it just as much for them.”

McIlroy will regret the mistakes he made on the first day, when his play had been so tense and nervous, the wild drive on the 1st tee, the three-putt from close range on the 16th, the hack from the rough on the 18th. “It’s going to be a tough one to get over,” he said, “I’ll probably rue the finish yesterday, dropping five shots on the last three holes.” Right now, in public at least, he is still insisting it was “a blip”, that it was “just one of those things”. It was not and he and his team will have to come with a better, and more honest, answer than that if he is ever going to figure out and fix what went wrong.

Because the truth is that McIlroy played one of the very worst rounds of his life when it mattered most, on a course he, and his caddie, know as well as any in the world, a course where he then played, the very next day, some of his very finest golf, in a tournament he has been preparing for over the last two years.

McIlroy’s flaws make him easy to love but, if he is going to win more than the four majors he has, to win as many as his absurd natural talents deserve, he is going to have to figure out how to overcome them. “There’s always next week,” he said, “I’ve got a pretty big tournament in Memphis.” As if history was going to remember how he gets on in the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational. “Even though the major season is over for me, there’s still a lot to play for.” He did not sound convinced.