SOUTHPORT, England -- Rory McIlroy arrived at Royal Birkdale a week ago, head down, ready to go to work. He had missed consecutive cuts on the European Tour, including the Irish Open, the tournament that benefits his own foundation. And he was staring at a lost season, as injuries haven't allowed him to chip away at the competitive rust.
Earning a place on the edge of the top 10 heading into the final round of The Open should have been a good sign, one for McIlroy to build on, especially with a favorite venue, Quail Hollow, waiting at the PGA Championship in three weeks.
But McIlroy, 28, wasn't exactly seeing it that way early Saturday evening. The four-time major champion had the proverbial smoke emitting from his ears. He bit his lip as he spoke, doing his best to suppress his anger. No moral victories here.
"It's hard to think big picture now; I'm just off the golf course and I'm a little disappointed,'' said McIlroy, who shot a 69.
"This week has been a step in the right direction, there's no doubt about it. And I need to pick myself up, play a good round tomorrow and hope for some bad weather. And hope for some guys to struggle. And we'll see what happens.
"[But] I definitely feel like today was an opportunity lost to get right in the mix.''
Overnight and early Saturday, McIlroy had good vibes going his way. After an awful start to the tournament on Thursday, when he played the first six holes in 5 over par, he rebounded to shoot 71. He added a 68 in tough conditions Friday, having played the middle 18 holes of the first 36 in just 63 strokes.
He began the third round 5 strokes behind leader Jordan Spieth, and then birdied two of the first four holes to jump within a stroke of the lead; those around him were buzzing.
And then it went bad. Bogey at the seventh. Another at the eighth. After bouncing back with a birdie at the ninth, there was a crippling double-bogey at the 10th.
"Bad swing on 7. I just was a bit sloppy on the eighth hole. And then I just completely -- I took the wrong club on 10 off the tee,'' he said. "You either hit a club that stays short of all those bunkers, or you take a club that at least only brings the traps up at 300 into play. and I did neither.
"So that was a really bad club off the tee. And then I got frustrated with that, just about got it out of the bunker and made 6. I felt I gave myself some chances coming in. I didn't quite capitalize. I should have made that eagle on 15. And then not to birdie 17, either, was disappointing.''
McIlroy went from thoughts of contending for the Claret Jug on Sunday to finishing 9 strokes back of Spieth and 6 behind second-place Matt Kuchar after 54 holes.
Perhaps things might have been different if McIlroy had managed the 10th hole better: Hitting a 3-iron off the tee brought bunkers into play. It was a crucial error, because he made a double from which he never recovered.
He could have hit a 4-iron or 5-iron to stay short. Or a 1-iron, he said, to clear those bunkers and have just one other to worry about. "I was disappointed with that,'' he said.
McIlroy had a chance for an eagle at the par-5 15th, but missed an 8-footer and settled for a birdie. He was unable to birdie the par-5 17th. Thus a par on the last hole and 37 strokes over the final nine holes left him feeling less than excited.
"There is low scores out there, and people are not making mistakes,'' he said. "If you keep it in play, it's almost hard to make a bogey out there, you know? I've always been good when I get off to fast starts, being able to keep it going, and I didn't today. And I needed to, that's the disappointing thing.''
Branden Grace shot 62, setting the major championship record and breaking the mark of 63, which has been recorded 31 times. Dustin Johnson shot 64. There were five 65s, including the one shot by Spieth, who built on his lead and kept at bay those who took advantage of the easiest scoring conditions of the week.
McIlroy was not among them. "It's getting there,'' he said. "But it's not quite where I need it to be to win the biggest golf tournaments in the world.''