The Open Sunday showdown will bear fruit for Tiger and I as we relearn how to win: Rory McIlroy
Even the greats have to learn to be great again and that goes for Rory McIlroy after he came up two strokes short in his bid for that elusive fifth Major title.
The Co Down man believes he took another step back on the road to the top at Carnoustie yesterday and rather than look back on his turgid start - two bogeys in his first five holes - he felt he didn't lose The Open but that Francesco Molinari went out and won it.
That's debatable given the hit and miss quality of his putting and his distinctly average wedge play.
- The Open: Flawless Francesco Molinari sees off McIlroy, Woods and Spieth on thrilling Sunday at Carnoustie
But what he clearly doesn't lack is guts and a fifth major win cannot be far away if he takes a leaf out of the Italian's book and tightens up his scoring game.
He lit up the tournament when he birdied the ninth from 45 feet, pitched close after a huge tee shot at the 11th to get within two of the leader Tiger Woods, then followed a sloppy, three-putt bogey at the 12th with a sensational eagle three from 40 feet at the 14th that briefly put him in a six-way tie for the lead.
"When we had played nine holes and saw that Tiger was in the lead, we thought, wow, this is going to be a dogfight until the end and it turned out that way," McIlroy said.
His celebrations after his eagle at the 14th made him think it might be his day but it was Molinari who proved to be the toughest dog of them all.
While McIlroy made a clutch par putt from four feet at the 16th and another from eight feet after bunkering his approach at the 17th, a poor wedge left him too much to do for his birdie at the last and he could only doff his hat to the Italian who denied him the BMW PGA in May.
"I think with how he's played this year, there's just maybe a little more belief," McIlroy said, hinting at what might be lacking in his own game right now.
"I played with him the final day at Wentworth, where he won, and he didn't miss a shot.
"So there's going to be a lot of European guys vying for his partnership in the foursomes at the Ryder Cup, that's for sure."
Molinari's relentless ball-striking proved key, but he has also worked hard to improve his wedge play and putting.
"It's all about hanging around and not making many mistakes because par was a good score," he said. "When that eagle putt went in on 14, I felt I needed a birdie or two coming in to post a number, but I wasn't able to get that birdie. I had a chance at the last but I would still have been one short."
After shooting a one-under 70 beat all the players who started the day in the top 10 bar Molinari, he refused to beat himself up for finishing tied for second with Rose, Kevin Kisner and Zander Schauffele on six-under par. After four years without a major win, he's had two chances this year and if he keeps putting his neck on the line, good things will happen.
That's true too of Woods', whose double bogey at the 11th and his bogey at the 12th ultimately proved to be his undoing.
McIlroy knows that winning majors is a skill that can become rusty but while he's only been waiting four years for major number five, Woods' last win was in 2008 and the scar tissue keeps building.
"You know, he does things that maybe he didn't do 10, 15 years ago," McIlroy said of Woods, whose share of sixth place helped him return to the world's top 50 for the first time since January 20.
"Even though he's won 14 [majors], you have to learn how to get back. I'm relearning. I feel like I've won quite a few recently, but you still have to relearn to deal with it.
"Today was a good day for both of us with that, I guess."
You don't win The Open until the back nine on Sunday but you can lose it on the front nine and while McIlroy said he had no regrets, he played his first five holes in two-over par.
While a monster birdie putt from 45 feet at the ninth kickstarted his bid for a second Claret Jug, what came before proved too much of a handicap.
He missed a nine-footer for par at the second and a 10 footer for birdie at the fourth before three-putting the fifth from 40 feet after a poor wedge.
He was suddenly six shots off the lead and while he holed an 18 footer for a scrappy par after three times finding the rough on the par-five sixth, he never got going until he birdied the ninth.
"Not really frustrated," he said at the finish. "I played well. I could have squeezed one more out of the round today. When I made the eagle on 14, it was tough to get close on 15, 16, and 17.
"I think anything under par out there today was a good score.
"I'm happy with how I played. I didn't get off to a great start, but I hung in there, and I battled back. Just sort of ran out of holes at the end."