Analysis: Rory McIlroy has 4 majors and a major collapse. Where he goes from here shapes his legacy

PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) — Rory McIlroy had every reason to feel bitterly disappointed.

He was poised to end all those years without winning another major when he couldn't make a birdie over the last 17 holes, couldn't hit a fairway to even give himself a good chance, and he finished one shot behind in the U.S. Open.

That was last year in Los Angeles, and it prompted McIlroy to look ahead and famously say, “I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”

Just not Sunday at Pinehurst No. 2.

The indelible images from the 124th U.S. Open share top billing. Yes, there was that 55-yard bunker shot from Bryson DeChambeau that he played expertly to 4 feet for the winning par putt. And there was McIlroy missing par putts from 30 inches on the 16th hole and 3 feet, 9 inches on the 18th hole.

Which will be remembered more?

Majors are won and majors are lost, and this was a little of both.

DeChambeau celebrated into the night at Pinehurst No. 2, wanting fans to touch the silver trophy. McIlroy left Pinehurst so quickly that gravel spit out from under the tires on his car. The time between McIlroy dejectedly leaving the scoring area to his plane taking off for home was 52 minutes.

“A tough day, probably the toughest I've had in my nearly 17 years as a professional golfer,” McIlroy said, the words coming from a social media post a day later instead of taking questions from print or broadcast media, more typical of a professional golfer over the years.

This was tough to watch, among the great collapses in golf, though not the worst in a U.S. Open or any other major.

“I am such an idiot,” Phil Mickelson said after the 2006 U.S. Open.

Already a runner-up three times in the U.S. Open, Mickelson had a one-shot lead going to the 18th hole at Winged Foot. He missed another fairway, took on a heroic shot he didn't need with a 3-iron and made double bogey to lose by one.

“I would rather have blown it yesterday than this way,” Sam Snead said in 1947 after the U.S. Open, the major he never won.

Snead had a two-shot lead with three holes left in an 18-hole playoff at St. Louis Country Club. He was tied with Lew Worsham on the 90th hole and needed a 15-foot birdie putt for the win. Snead left it 30 inches short and went to rap it in when Worsham called for a ruling to confirm who was away. It was Snead's turn, as he thought, and he promptly missed the putt and lost.

Jan Van de Velde losing a three-shot lead with a triple bogey on the final hole at Carnoustie in 1999. Ed Sneed losing a three-shot lead with three holes to play and then losing in a playoff at the 1979 Masters. Scott Hoch missing a 30-inch putt that would have won the 1989 Masters in a playoff.

McIlroy joined a long list. That doesn't make it any easier to take.

He did all the right things — mainly find the fairway in the final round of a U.S. Open — and looked the part by keeping his emotions to a minimum on the five birdies that put him in such a commanding position. Why he missed his shortest putt of the year on the 16th is a mystery.

Where he goes from here is what should have everyone curious.

McIlroy pulled out of the Travelers Championship as part of a three-week break “to process everything and build myself back up.”

One more major remains this year, the British Open at Royal Troon.

McIlroy has failed to win majors before. He lost a four-shot lead in the final round of the 2011 Masters with an 80 (that was more a slow bleed, though no less difficult to watch). He shared the lead at St. Andrews in 2022 before two-putting his way to a third-place finish.

If McIlroy has underachieved, it's only because he has had so few chances since his last major at Valhalla in the 2014 PGA Championship.

He hasn't played well enough to win. Pinehurst was one that he lost.

To suggest his legacy will be his failure in the majors is to spend too much time on two short putts and to overlook a pair of eight-shot victories at Congressional and Kiawah Island, a clutch moment at Valhalla and going wire-to-wire at Royal Liverpool.

Add to that 36 victories around the world — 26 on the PGA Tour — and he ranks as the most accomplished of his generation.

This was a bad Sunday, made worse by having gone 10 years since his last major title. Mickelson's blunder at Winged Foot cost him three straight majors. Snead's miss at St. Louis was a year after he won at St. Andrews, and he won five more majors after that.

McIlroy is 35, but the scar tissue is starting to accumulate.

“I feel closer to winning my next major championship than I ever have,” McIlroy said.

The next major he wins will be the biggest. Because it might be what it takes to forget about the last one he lost.


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