PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (AP) — Rory McIlroy’s salvage operation began as a quest to regain respectability. Keeping his ball in play off the first tee was a good way to start.
By the time he reached the back nine, it had become something very different.
McIlroy was on the charge in a British Open at Royal Portrush — a sensation he’d dreamt of for so long — and it felt like all of Northern Ireland was behind him as he walked the links on the North Atlantic coast.
“Rory, we love you,” shouted a female fan beside the 14th green after he made a fourth birdie in five holes.
“We’re with you all the way, Rory,” cried one man after McIlroy holed a 10-foot putt for another birdie at No. 16, nicknamed Calamity Corner.
McIlroy just needed one more birdie on the last hole to make the cut and complete one of the great redemption tales of this storied event.
It wasn’t to be.
“I didn’t play my part,” McIlroy said after a par at No. 18 meant he finished one stroke below the cut line at 1 over, despite a 6-under 65 that tied the best round of the week. “But everyone in Northern Ireland came out to watch me and played theirs.”
In the end, that shocking opening-round 79 did too much damage. That tee shot at the first that went out of bounds. That missed putt from barely a foot at No. 16, something McIlroy deemed “inexcusable.” That sloppy triple bogey at the last that sagged his shoulders even more.
That was all forgotten by the locals a day later. The spine-tingling roar McIlroy received from the grandstands as he walked down the 18th fairway, the clock having passed 8 p.m. and the light fading, will stay with him forever.
McIlroy struggled to hold back the tears in his post-round interviews. High up in his thoughts was the feeling that he had connected with his fellow natives who so rarely see Northern Ireland’s most famous active sportsman in the flesh.
“Sometimes you’re so far away and you forget about all the people that are cheering you on back home,” said McIlroy, who lives in south Florida. “And then you come and play in front of them. It definitely hit me like a ton of bricks today.”
The pre-tournament betting favorite to hold the claret jug on Sunday, McIlroy began his second round as a 500-1 outsider and needing something comparable to the 61 he shot as a 16-year-old amateur to simply make the weekend.
A long birdie putt at No. 3 and a 15-footer for another birdie at No. 7 gave him only an outside chance heading to the turn.
Then McIlroy accelerated. A birdie at No. 10 was followed by another at the 11th after an approach to 2 feet. A tap-in birdie at the par-5 12th left him only two shots from safety and it felt as if every spectator on the Dunluce Links had converged to watch McIlroy’s group, which also contained U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and England’s Paul Casey.
McIlroy found the bunker off the 13th tee and left his 12-foot par putt short for his only bogey of the day, making his task that much harder.
Three birdies were required from the final five holes, the first arriving from 15 feet at No. 14 after an approach which left McIlroy holding his pose.
Whoops of joy from beer-swilling spectators greeted his birdie putt from 10 feet at No. 16, and fans even cheered McIlroy as he ducked out for a bathroom break on the side of the 17th fairway.
He pulled his birdie putt on the 17th green, to massive groans. McIlroy had one more chance.
But from the middle of the 18th fairway, McIlroy hit his approach left and the ball landed on a mound to the side of the green and rolled down the slope. He leaned on his iron, shook his head, and shaped with his left hand the way he wanted to hit that shot.
Only a chip-in would keep McIlroy at Royal Portrush for an extra two days, but his attempt swerved left.
Still, his putt for par was received like he had rolled in the winning putt on Sunday.
“It’s a moment I envisaged for the last few years. It just happened two days early,” McIlroy said. “Today was probably one of the most fun rounds of golf I’ve ever played. It’s strange saying that standing here and having had a bit of success and won this championship before, and just to be battling to make the cut.”
McIlroy remains stuck on four majors, his drought in golf’s biggest events certain to extend to a sixth year.
Friday’s round was a reminder, though, of how big a draw McIlroy is, especially back on home soil.
“Even as a competitor and trying to beat the guy every week, sometimes I have to step back and realize how great Rory McIlroy is for golf,” Justin Thomas tweeted. “How he handles the spotlight, the highs, the lows, his social life, the fans, his golf, everything.. it’s awesome to watch.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80