HOYLAKE, England — Rory McIlroy tried again, but it wasn’t enough.
Nine shots off the lead entering Sunday, the four-time major winner began his final round by making three birdies in the first six holes — just as he did on Saturday — and giving himself an outside shot to make a run for the Claret Jar. But any hope of a McIlroy comeback and a win for the ages vanished over the next 12 holes.
When putts stopped landing and drives and approach shots lost their sharpness, McIlroy, drenched in the Liverpool rain, finished The Open in sixth place, 7 shots behind eventual winner Brian Harman and missed a major championship for the ninth year in a row.
“It was just tough,” McIlroy said. “I had to go out and shoot something 63-64, but really hard to do that in those conditions.”
McIlroy, as he has all year, was in the hunt despite not reaching his full potential in every round. He ranked seventh in the field in strokes gained on approach and sixth in strokes gained off the tee. His putting and short game (54th in strokes gained, 75th in strokes gained around the green) weren’t debilitating, but they just weren’t good enough to give him a real shot at winning on Sunday.
“I missed a few shots yesterday. I felt like I putt better today,” McIlroy said.
Placement was just one issue. The rain and wind prevented McIlroy from being as aggressive as he could be with his biggest weapon: the driver.
“Very hesitant to hit driver because the clubface gets wet and the ball can go anywhere,” McIlroy said. “I had to pull back games and try to play as conservatively and as smartly as possible.”
However, McIlroy gave himself opportunities on the green that he was unable to capitalize on all week. Easy shot to save level with no. 16 on Sunday that circled the cup and likely stayed out all but summed up his week. His birdie putt at no. 18 was a cruel last miss — missed the hole by about an inch.
McIlroy, 34, could not repeat the magic from his performance at Hoylake in 2014 when he won his third Grand Slam title, leaving him once again with a year of many close encounters but no character to show for it. McIlroy, however, remained adamant that his optimism about his game and his big chances have not wavered.
“I improved my score every day,” McIlroy said. “Not spectacular, but a lot of optimism for the rest of the year.”
In the absence of a major win, it’s easy to overlook the consistency McIlroy has displayed over the past two years. Aside from a missed opportunity at the Masters this year, McIlroy has finished in the top 10 in seven of his last eight major appearances. There’s a reason it feels like déjà vu every weekend at a major with McIlroy back: He does enough to put himself in that position even when his game isn’t at its best. His ceiling may be higher than ever, but so is his floor.
“Most times I do it, I’m there,” McIlroy said. “I can’t sit here and be very frustrated. [this] it’s much better than that.”
McIlroy doesn’t seem to dwell on his big drought as much as he seems to care about winning everything he can. He spoke on Friday about shifting his focus to winning his fourth FedEx Cup, fifth Dubai Race and fifth Ryder Cup. The close calls have brought scrutiny and criticism, but for McIlroy, they seem to be constant proof that his time will soon come.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” McIlroy said. “I just keep looking forward.”