Why Rory McIlroy says his most gutting loss came to Tiger Woods

February 20, 2020

When it comes to gutting losses, Rory McIlroy remembers.

“It was my first year on the European Tour, and it stuck with me. I had a one-shot lead playing the last, bogeyed the last and then lost a playoff there. That’s always stuck with me a little bit.”

Who beat him?

“Jean-Francois Lucquin.”

As for his worst loss ever? McIlroy took a deep breath. “I mean, there’s a few. I could count 10 or so.”

The way that McIlroy remembers should serve as a reminder that for so many top athletes, the losses are just as enduring as the wins. Speaking to reporters before this week’s WGC-Mexico, he easily recounted the ones that got away.

Still, one round endures in McIlroy’s mind: Tour Championship Sunday in 2018. For the golf world at large, it was one of the biggest moments this decade. Tiger Woods held a three-shot lead heading to the final round at East Lake, and he was paired with McIlroy in the final tee time of the day. What the public remembers McIlroy for that day is walking alongside Woods up 18 as thousands of fans poured into the fairway behind him. What McIlroy remembers from that day is that he failed to put up a proper fight.

McIlroy shot a final-round 74, the second-highest score in the field, and finished T7 — six shots behind Woods.

Rory McIlroy's loss to Tiger Woods at the 2018 Tour Championship still sticks with him.
Getty Images

“It was sort of the first time I’d really been in that position with him, and I didn’t get the best out of myself that day, and that hurt a little bit just because he’s such a hero for a lot of us out here,” McIlroy said. “You dream of situations like that, and then not being able to conjure up your best stuff when you need it — that one hurt a little bit.”

It happened eighteen months ago, but this is the second time in as many weeks that McIlroy has referenced the loss to Woods. In his sitdown interview with Paul Kimmage (which you should read here!), he expanded on his conflicting feelings after Woods finished off his first win in five years.

“It’s tough. Everyone was like “Wasn’t that a great moment?” And I’m like, ‘No, it was f—– s—!’ It was terrible. I birdied the last to shoot four over! And I got the bigger picture that it was wonderful for golf, and I’m sure I’ll look back and think ‘That was pretty cool,’ but it hurt. It really hurt. I was probably the only one at East Lake that day that was disappointed.”

In golf, where even Woods has only won 20 percent of his starts, everyone has to get accustomed to losing. It’s just that the losses are easier to cope with when wins come shortly thereafter. The world No. 1 suffered another defeat this past Sunday, when a triple bogey helped sink his chances from the final group at Riviera. No matter — he’ll have his next chance this weekend in Mexico City.

To receive GOLF’s all-new newsletters, subscribe for free here.