U.S. Open: For Rory McIlroy, there’s nothing more to say

PINEHURST, N.C. — Where does Rory McIlroy go from here? Where do you even start to pick up the pieces of a shattered dream?

Does he comfort himself with the fact that, yet again, he was in the mix for a major right until the final holes?

Does he consider that he’s lost three majors in the past two years — the 2022 Open Championship, the 2023 U.S. Open and this — by a total of four strokes?

Does he collapse? Implode? Plod his way through the rest of his career wondering how 6 feet worth of putts on Sunday night could have changed his life?

Sunday night at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, McIlroy saw his best chance to win a major in the past decade — a decade, let’s not forget, already full of near-misses — roll toward the cup, peer over the edge, and lip right on out. Twice.

Behind him, Bryson DeChambeau stalked, waiting for the opportunity to strike. By the back nine, DeChambeau had given away the three-shot lead he’d started the day with, but he stayed focused, on McIlroy and on his own game. And when McIlroy’s third shot on No. 18 nestled up inside 4 feet of the pin, DeChambeau had a moment of doubt.

Man, if he makes par, I don’t know how I’m going to beat him, DeChambeau thought.

“Then I heard the moans,” DeChambeau said afterward. “Like a shot of adrenaline got in me. I said, OK, you can do this.”

The moans. I’ve covered thousands of sporting events over the years, and I’ve never heard a sound from a gallery, a crowd, a gathering quite like that. It was a primal wail of agony, of frustration, of rage, of disbelief. The thousands gathered around the 18th green went through all the stages of grief in a heartbeat, from denial all the way to sad, bitter acceptance. Only the true meatheads in the crowd — and there were a few, like the one who shouted “It looks bad!” to McIlroy after his tee shot on 18 — would have wanted DeChambeau to win like that.

“For him to miss that putt,” DeChambeau said, “I'd never wish it on anybody. It just happened to play out that way.”

Every championship ends in heartbreak for someone. At this point, every golf major ends in heartbreak for McIlroy. Every time the sun sets on another major Sunday and McIlroy leaves the 18th green without a trophy; every time he has to walk into another major week and face the questions of “Is it going to happen this week, Rory?” every time an engraver taps out yet another player’s name … well, how much more can one guy take?

This is the point where we insert the usual disclaimer that, yes, “millionaire golfer can’t win certain tournaments” is a 1 percent of 1 percenter problem. If that’s all that you bring to the table when considering McIlroy’s decade-long-and-counting slow-moving catastrophe, your point is noted. Thanks for stopping by.

Players of McIlroy’s caliber don’t play golf to get rich; they get rich because they’re very good at golf. There are plenty of players who have earned eight figures’ worth of wealth on the golf course and never gotten close to a major trophy. (Some of them were even on the leaderboard Sunday.)

The record will show that McIlroy missed putts on Nos. 16 and 18 that totaled 6 feet, 3 inches, misses that let DeChambeau catch, then pass him for the U.S. Open trophy. But the numbers aren’t the real story here. The tragedy — and, again, this is a sports tragedy, not a true tragedy — is that McIlroy knows he fumbled this one. Knows that he had one hand on that trophy. Knows that if he had these putts another thousand times, he’d probably make all thousand of them.

The reason why McIlroy has been such a fan (and media) favorite for so many years is that he’s always seemed so relatably human. He’s a sports fan, he likes TV shows like “Succession,” he can even belt out a reasonably decent bar-band version of “Don’t Stop Believin.’” In a sports world increasingly dominated by brand-friendly automatons spouting predictable clichés, McIlroy’s willingness to take on tough subjects — like the ongoing divide in golf — is rare and admirable.

Rory McIlroy watches from the scoring tent as Bryson DeChambeau capitalizes on his mistake to win the U.S. Open. (NBC)
Rory McIlroy watches from the scoring room as Bryson DeChambeau capitalizes on his mistake to win the U.S. Open. (NBC)

He didn’t speak to the media Sunday night, climbing into his courtesy Lexus and spinning the tires on the way out of Pinehurst, and I absolutely cannot blame him for that. What’s he going to say that we don’t already know? Why does he need to rip his heart open for our inspection when we saw everything we needed to see right there on the 18th green, and in the scorers’ room inside the clubhouse? The man deserves to grieve this loss in peace.

Where does he go from here? What does he do? How does he come back from such a devastating defeat in a decade of them? I have no idea. Neither do you. Neither, probably, does McIlroy himself.

After this week, there are no more easy putts, and no more easy answers.