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Rory McIlroy has been here before.
“I felt like I didn’t do much wrong, but I didn’t do much right either,” he said after Cameron Smith snatched the Claret Jug from his grasp at St Andrews last July.
There was a familiar gut-wrenching feeling at the Los Angeles Country Club on Sunday, where McIlroy battled valiantly but could not seize another almighty chance to end his major rot.
McIlroy huffed and puffed, but ultimately came up just one shot shy and he now heads to Hoylake next month knowing he only has one more attempt to stop his painful major drought reaching its tenth year.
Instead it was Wyndham Clark, the fearless American who had not previously finished higher than 75th in a major, who lived up to the Hollywood setting by completing an inspiring underdog story.
Clark had not made a US Open cut before pitching up in LA but played like a man with McIlroy’s credentials as he refused to blink on the biggest stage of all.
His PGA Tour breakthrough may have come at the Wells Fargo last month, but his new position at golf’s top table was secured in nerveless fashion at his national championship on Sunday.
He leaned on his mesmerising short game all afternoon to grab the initiative throughout. A damage-mitigating bogey save on the eighth was hugely important and his up and down at the par-3 ninth was just as impressive.
The door was left slightly ajar for McIlroy when Clark carded back-to-back bogeys on 15 and 16, but the 29-year-old regrouped and recovered admirably.
He composed himself superbly with a 60ft lag putt on 18 and sealed glory with a tap in before the outpouring of emotion began.
The tearful Clark dedicated the win to his late mother Lise, who died of breast cancer ten years ago when he was finding his feet in the college ranks at Oklahoma State.
“I felt like my mum was watching over me today,” he said. “Miss you mum. And I worked so hard and so many times I visualised winning this championship and it felt like my time.”
Clark has now jumped up to 13th in the world rankings and second in the US Ryder Cup standings. A new star has emerged and a spot in Zach Johnson’s team in Rome beckons.
But for McIlroy, the wait goes on.
The Northern Irishman, just like his playing partner Scottie Schefffler, was undone by his stone cold putter on Sunday and will leave Los Angeles wondering when his time will come.
From tee to green he did little wrong. His driving set the standard for most of the week and he gave himself a handful of chances to reel Clark in around the turn.
His three-putt to par the gettable par-5 eighth was a decisive error, but there were makeable birdie tries of no more than 20ft on the next three holes that also went awry.
A wayward wedge then resulted in a bogey six on the par-5 14th just as he was primed to make his move.
These are the moments McIlroy knows defines major championship Sundays and again he was just short of that crucial moment of inspiration.
But it was testament to McIlroy’s character that he took such a philosophical approach after an agonising miss that is bound to sting for some time.
“There are fine margins at this level and at this tournament especially, but I fought to the very end,” he conceded. “I obviously never give up. And I’m getting closer.
“The more I keep putting myself in these positions, sooner or later it’s going to happen for me.”
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