Inches make all the difference for Rory McIlroy as Open slips away

Rory McIlroy had been waiting seven years, 11 months, eight days for this opportunity, ever since he won his fourth major at Valhalla in 2014. And in the end all that time turned on one moment, at 6.30pm on the 17th green of the Old Course at St Andrews.

Way ahead of him, up the 18th fairway, Cameron Smith was standing over a two-foot putt that would take him to 20 under for the championship. McIlroy, two shots back from that, knew he needed to finish with back-to-back birdies to match him, and take the 150th Open into a playoff.

McIlroy had just hit the most brilliant shot to give himself this chance, a nine iron from 160 yards that settled down on the back lip of the green where, if it had bounced only another dozen inches, it would have slipped down on to the road that gives this famous hole its name. But it didn’t. So now he was facing this 15ft putt, tens of thousands of fans in the stands around him, hundreds of thousands listening on the radio, millions watching on TV, all hanging on this one stroke. The ball rolled up to the cup, an inch to its left, and three feet beyond it.

The crowd sighed, McIlroy sagged.

McIlroy did not lose this Open so much as he had it taken from him by Smith, whose supernatural play around the back nine swept McIlroy’s lead away from underneath his feet. It was like watching the tide close in on the sandcastles the day-trippers had left on West Sands beach.

But the how of it will not matter to McIlroy now, who will have to reconcile himself to yet another near-miss. He has had eight top‑five finishes in majors since Valhalla. In the end the record will show he finished third here, as Smith’s partner, Cameron Young, made an eagle putt on the 18th to finish at 19 under, while McIlroy blew his birdie opportunity trying to make the eagle he needed to tie Smith.

There had been a hint of what was to come four hours earlier, when McIlroy reached the 1st green, which sits just a few yards away from the 17th. McIlroy had an 18ft birdie putt there, from the heart of the green back towards a pin sitting just in front of the burn. He missed that one by a few inches, too. Given that he had 17 holes ahead of him at the time, one could never have known how important it would turn out to be, but looking back it foreshadowed the problem that would bother him all round and which would end up costing him this championship. The birdie putts just wouldn’t drop.

Around the front nine it looked as if McIlroy would get away with it. One imagines that he, like everyone else, assumed the Open was likely to come down to a head-to-head contest between him and his playing partner, Viktor Hovland, who were tied on 16 under overnight, four shots clear of Smith and Young. It meant the rounds out before them passed like the long undercard of a heavyweight title fight and then, when McIlroy and Hovland finally did make it on to the 1st tee at 2.50pm, the atmosphere suddenly became excruciatingly tense.

McIlroy seemed to be handling it. He covered the first four holes in even par. Hovland matched him on the first three of them. The Open felt, at that point, like a staring contest and it was Hovland who blinked. A wayward iron shot on the 4th left him 70 yards away from the pin, and he made a three-putt bogey. McIlroy pressed his advantage at the par-five 5th, where he picked up his first birdie after he hit his approach to 17ft. That put him two shots clear, and it felt, for the first time, as if he, and everyone else, could start to breathe a little easier.

But it was only the briefest release from the pressure. Because just as Hovland started falling off, Smith, playing up in the pair ahead, came racing up with a string of birdies: one, two, three, four, five, of them on the back nine. And all of a sudden, McIlroy’s slow and steady-as-she-goes golf, which had seen off Hovland, left him vulnerable. While Smith was pulling up to, and then beyond his score of 18 under, McIlroy was playing par golf through the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th. He missed birdie opportunities on the first and last of that stretch.

The second of them, from 13ft, was particularly painful and McIlroy went back to the spot to rehearse the stroke afterwards, shaking his head at himself while he did it. He did pick up one more birdie on the par-three 10th with a brilliant, sinuous, lag putt from 126ft, but it was not enough, given how brilliantly Smith was playing in front of him.

Soon enough Smith, 29 next month, was in front, one shot up. The heavy pressure was coming down on McIlroy now, and he needed to respond. But he could not do it. He had one clear opportunity to get back into a share of the lead at the par-five 14th, and he knew it, but he needed to make a putt from 20ft to do it, and it did not happen.

The margins of those three missed putts on the 1st, 14th and 17th must have added up to a handful of inches. You could probably add them all on your fingers but for McIlroy, and Smith, they made all the difference.