Subscriber OnlyGolfOpinion

Rory McIlroy choked at the US Open and he has nobody to blame but himself

This wasn’t about Bryson DeChambeau’s bunker shot or McIlroy’s perennially put-upon caddie - it was about the scrambled brain that led to two short putts being missed when everything was on the line

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts after finishing the 18th hole during the final round of the US Open at Pinehurst Resort on Sunday night. Photograph: Jared C Tilton/Getty Images

This one is going to linger. It has to. In the days and weeks and surely even years to come, Rory McIlroy is going to feel the sting of what happened in those 23 minutes on Sunday night at Pinehurst. Extending his 10-year purgatory without a major is one thing. Finding a completely new way to come up short is another. Especially when there’s nobody to blame but himself.

Missing two putts inside four feet in any round is bad for any pro golfer. Doing it in the final three holes to lose a US Open by a shot means everything else melts away. Every other factor in the result becomes irrelevant.

Bryson DeChambeau’s bunker shot for all time? Couldn’t have mattered less had McIlroy sunk the two putts. Those curious club/shot selections down the stretch? A wry footnote at worst, something to laugh about through the puffed cheeks of victory. Backing off shots in the closing holes? Understandable nerves, actually quite sweet in a way – as long as the putts go down.

But they didn’t.


This wasn’t Harry Diamond’s fault. McIlroy’s perennially picked-upon caddie got his man to the 70th green of a US Open with a one-shot lead and a 30-inch putt for par. Nothing a bagman can do in that scenario but presume his boss will see it out. It wasn’t down to a Cam Smith-style run of birdies from an opponent on a hot streak either – DeChambeau had his worst score of the week and played his last five holes in one over par.

No, this one is entirely on McIlroy. He choked, plain and simple. He did everything right until he got within sight of the finish line and then he did everything wrong. His putter, which had been such a laser-guided weapon all week and particularly on Sunday, turned into a jelly snake right at the moment of highest tension and sharpest consequence. This can only have been due to a mental meltdown.

Rory McIlroy is consoled by his caddie Harry Diamond after making a bogey on the 18th hole during the final round. Photograph: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As the leading golf statto Justin Ray pointed out, McIlroy had faced 496 putts inside three feet all season standing on the 16th green and had made all 496 of them. He had holed them in every circumstance, from early Thursday mornings to late Sunday evenings and all imaginable scenarios in between. Of the countless ways for his challenge to fall apart, every analyst of his game would have got a long way down the list before landing on his short putting.

The days of people watching him through their fingers as he stood over important putts were long gone, we thought. At Pinehurst on Sunday, he was having one of the great putting days of his career. Even with the two tiddlers missed down the stretch, the cold numbers say he still ranked eighth in the field for strokes gained putting in the final round.

His technique was sound, his speed was on the money – so many of his putts died in the hole, a clear indication that he and Diamond had worked out the puzzle of Pinehurst’s baked, humpbacked greens across the week. He was like a Vegas magician who had built his illusion step-by-step and layer-by-layer. He had the audience sitting forward in their seats agog, ready for the last big flourish of the reveal.

Except now, when he reached into his top hat, there was no rabbit to pull out. The easiest part of the trick had become the most difficult. All the lights were on him, all the trumpets were tuned and ready. All the scrapes and calluses of a decade’s toil in the majors were about to get their payoff. And the weight of it crushed him.

Rory McIlroy misses that putt on the 18th of the final round, that cost him so dear. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

His brain got scrambled to the extent that he couldn’t complete the simplest, hardest task in golf. There’s a very good reason they call it choking – swallowing is the most natural thing in the world when you don’t have to think about it. But when something gets stuck, it happens suddenly and without warning your instinct is sheer panic. That’s who McIlroy became, having been the complete opposite all week.

The psychodrama will play out over the next while, as it must. It will be fascinating to see how he handles it. He’s down to play the Travellers Championship this week. Will he turn up? If he does, will he do a press conference? Will he talk about choking, that great unspeakable bogeyman taboo of golf?

He should. If nothing else, it would take the sting out of the phrase for everyone. Choking happens to all golfers at one stage or another, yet none of them ever cop to it. For a crowd of lads who are typically among the dweebier end of the sporting population, there’s a drearily macho refusal to ever admit to mental fragility. McIlroy could change all that, if he liked.

It would be understandable if he didn’t feel that was a priority this week, obviously. But it might do him some good at the same time. He has to find some way of moving on from this.

How he goes about it will keep the rest of us agog for a while yet.