OLIVER HOLT: It’s a wearily familiar story for Rory McIlroy at The Open as he endures another day of torture and keeps finding ways to self-destruct when the biggest prizes are on the line

new balance

By the time Rory McIlroy came to the 12th tee, his round had begun to sputter and stutter. The rain had begun to fall, too, and as he strode grim-faced down the fairway, the coast of Flintshire, across the Dee Estuary, had begun to disappear in the mist. Only the faint contours of its hills remained. 

McIlroy glared out at the water as he walked. All he could see by then were mud flats and sandbars. The tide was going out. All he could feel was another major slipping away, another chance at closing the gap on the leaders disappearing. 

When he got to the 12th green, his ball was at the foot of a steep slope that ran away to the right of the putting surface. He needed to get up and down for a par. He fluffed his chip and it bit at the top of the slope. He was left with a 15-foot putt, which he missed. 

It was McIlroy’s first dropped shot of the day. It brought him back to three under, which, at the time, was six shots off the lead. And that was where he stayed, becalmed all the way to the end of his round. 

He has a mountain to climb on Sunday. He is nine shots off the lead held by Brian Harman and even if Harman implodes on the final day, which is possible, the suspicion is that there are too many good players between McIlroy and the prize for him to get the job done.

Rory McIlroy's third-round 69 left him nine back and he declined to speak to the media

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Rory McIlroy’s third-round 69 left him nine back and he declined to speak to the media

His talent seems to demand so much more than this but it can never quite deliver it

His talent seems to demand so much more than this but it can never quite deliver it

In the majors, at least, it is becoming a wearily familiar story for the best player these isles have produced since Nick Faldo. His talent seems to demand so much more than this but it can never quite deliver it. And so he goes through this torture at the biggest tournaments time after time after time. 

The Northern Irishman has finished in the top 10 in half of the majors he’s played since winning his fourth at the 2014 US PGA Championship and he may well do it again here at Hoylake. He is tied 11th and he will be able to play without pressure because his chance has surely gone. 

The story of the last 10 years is that he is always close but the prize always stays out of reach. He has got himself into a destructive groove at these tournaments where he always finds a way to lose. This time, it was his putting that was especially self-destructive.

He missed seven birdie putts from inside 17 feet and each time the reaction was the same. The ball would slide by and the crowd would groan and sigh. And McIlroy’s shoulders would slump and he would look away in disgust and he would point to the line that the ball should have taken on its way to the hole. 

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It had seemed that everything was set fair for him to make his move when his round started. The conditions were benign, there was no wind, the course was soft and malleable. And his confidence seemed to be high. 

He had bounded down the steps to the first tee with that Rory bounce and promptly birdied three of the first five holes. He should have birdied the fourth as well but he rolled it wide and yelled out in frustration.

In that first hour of play, he looked as if he was going to tear through the field and launch a one-man assault on Harman’s lead. He was playing beautifully, finding every fairway and reaching every green. 

But it was around the turn when his body language began to change and his play became a little ragged. Perhaps it was partly the burden of all those missed opportunities but by the closing stages of his round, he had begun to look thoroughly disenchanted. 

He often plays with a joie de vivre but it was missing here. He was in a bubble of concentration but it did not look like a happy place. Here and there, kids called out his name and begged him to acknowledge them but he strode on, staring ahead, looking like thunder. 

When he missed yet another birdie opportunity on the 18th, he looked as if he was ready to explode. ‘Head up, Rory lad,’ a voice shouted from the grandstand, trying to breathe some cheer into another disappointing day. 

The Northern Irishman has a mountain to climb if he's to catch leader Brian Harman (pictured)

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The Northern Irishman has a mountain to climb if he’s to catch leader Brian Harman (pictured)

Top-10 finishes are now the summit of Rory McIlroy's ambitions in the majors

Top-10 finishes are now the summit of Rory McIlroy’s ambitions in the majors

McIlroy was not in the mood to be cheered up. Most players habitually consent to do short interviews after their rounds. This time, McIlroy refused. He had also cancelled his pre tournament interview. He is wearing a general air of disillusionment. 

There was a time not so long ago where he appeared to have been galvanised by the fight against LIV Golf and by the responsibility of leading the PGA Tour’s fightback against the Saudi marauders. Now, he looks as if he has been drained by the struggle. 

Perhaps, in the light of the shock deal struck between the PGA and LIV, McIlroy feels used. He is entitled to feel used. But it does not change the fact that yet another year has now gone by without him winning a major. 

That means that even if he ends his drought at the Masters next spring, it will be 10 years since the last time he won one of golf’s biggest prizes. That drought is one of golf’s biggest mysteries. His demeanour here at Royal Liverpool, where he recorded his sole Open triumph in 2014, suggests it is weighing on him more and more.

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