The most compelling drama at the British Open on Friday didn’t happen at the top of the leaderboard, or anywhere near it.
The heart-thumping, hand-wringing action took place at the cut line, where local hero Rory McIlroy fought gamely to survive for the weekend. He fell just short, however, his six-under-par 65 unable to atone for the 79 he shot in the opening round.
He still got a rousing standing ovation from the fans in the grandstands surrounding the 18th green at Royal Portrush. Notably, precious few of them had phones raised to capture the moment. It was as if they wanted to see it with their own eyes, not on a tiny screen.
McIlroy, who technically established a course record because there are two new holes, was filled with emotions after 36 holes.
“Disappointed not to be here for the weekend,” he said. “Unbelievably proud of how I handled myself today coming back after what was a very challenging day yesterday. And just full of gratitude towards every single one of the people that followed me to the very end and was willing me on.
“As much as I came here at the start of the week saying I wanted to do it for me, you know, by the end of the round there today I was doing it just as much for them as I was for me. I wanted to be here for the weekend. Selfishly I wanted to feel that support for two more days.”
After his final putt, McIlroy removed his cap, stood at mid-green and raised his hands in applause to the crowd, thanking them for his support.
He wasn’t the only big name to miss the cut. Gary Woodland, who won the U.S. Open last month and was playing in his group, is done for the tournament too.
So are Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who for the first time in their illustrious careers missed the cut together in the same major championship.
Such is the heartbreak of Portrush, where the Irish weeping was not confined to the skies. A lot of hopes were pinned on McIlroy, a sentimental favorite who was raised in Belfast and was so looking forward to the first Open in Northern Ireland since 1951.
But the Emerald Isle still has a significant stake in this fight. Shane Lowry of Clara, Ireland, is tied with American J.B. Holmes for the eight-under lead heading into the weekend.
One shot back are Englishmen Tommy Fleetwood and Lee Westwood, and at three back is a knot of players that includes multiple major winners Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth.
No one truly has broken away from the pack so far, but the tournament is young.
For local Lowry, the familiarity of this Open is wonderful. But the unfamiliarity is even better.
Lowry missed the cut in the last four of these majors. Now, he’s loving that foreign feeling of being in the lead after two days.
“Obviously every day you play golf it could be better, but you look at the start I got off to, doesn’t get any better than that,” said Lowry, who has turned in back-to-back rounds of 67. “Look, I’m very happy where I am and right where I want to be.”
There has been a lot of talk about McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell lately — all Northern Irishmen, all major winners —and far less about Lowry, whose best finish at a major was a tie for second at the U.S. Open in 2016.
But Irish eyes are certainly smiling on Lowry now.
“It’s an incredible feeling getting applauded on every green, every tee box,” he said.
Lowry said one of the best parts of the British Open being held somewhere other than England or Scotland is he doesn’t have to fly anywhere.
“It’s nice to be able to get in my car and pack my car and not have to pack my clothes and my coverall,” he said, referring to a travel bag for clubs. “The best thing about it is I know the golf course, I know the area. When you’re in familiar surroundings it’s just nice to be here. And I think this is one of the best golf courses in Ireland, if not the world.”
Holmes, who followed a 66 with a 68, is feeling quite at home, too, even though his hometown of Campbellsville, Ky., is about 3,600 miles away.
“It’s set up great for me,” he said of Portrush. “I felt good about it kind of all week. I’ve been hitting it really good.”
The same could not be said of Woods (plus-six) and Mickelson (plus-eight), who drew a lot of fan interest but were never a factor here.
“It’s just a matter of being consistent,” said Woods, who at 43 is six years younger than Mickelson. “That’s one of the hardest things to accept as an older athlete is that you’re not going to be as consistent as you were at 23. Things are different.
“And I’m going to have my hot weeks,” continued this year’s Masters winner. “I’m going to be there in contention with a chance to win, and I will win tournaments. But there are times when I’m just not going to be there. And that wasn’t the case 20-odd years ago. I had a different body, and I was able to be a little more consistent.”
In another sense, Woods has been plenty consistent. Just not the way he wants.