Portrush, Northern Ireland (CNN)He was fighting for his honor.
Rory McIlroy had made such a hash of the first day of the Open that even making the cut at Royal Portrush would represent a victory.
Now, in the gloaming of Friday evening, the Northern Irishman was inching towards the cut mark, one nail-biting, stomach-churning birdie at a time.
Leaders JB Holmes and Shane Lowry had long since finished, setting the halfway mark at eight under to lead by one shot from English duo Tommy Fleetwood and Lee Westwood.
But the home crowd sensed the tournament within a tournament was only just heating up.
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McIlroy began the first Open in Northern Ireland for 68 years as the sentimental favorite, the local hero set to clinch a fairy tale win.
But his quadruple-bogey eight at the very first hole Thursday punctured that balloon, and he dropped a further five shots in the last three holes to finish with a 79 for eight over.
Needing to catch fire Friday, despite teeing off in sluicing rain, the four-time major champion hunkered down to the task.
The cut was projected to come at one over, meaning he had to make up seven shots.
On a course as formidable as the Dunluce links, in Open Championship set-up, with inclement weather, it was a stiff proposition.
But this was McIlroy, Northern Ireland’s most famous sporting son, who set the course record of 61 at Royal Portrush as a 16-year-old.
He was the one they’d all come to see, the man with a nation’s weight on his shoulders.
He’d clawed two shots back by the turn, but there was still a mountain to climb. But a run of three straight birdies from the 10th made the impossible dream suddenly appear in touch.
A bogey, via a greenside bunker on the short 13th, was like a dagger in the heart — back to four over and with holes running out.
But the star from Holywood, near Belfast has always been box office and he refused to give in, manufacturing another birdie on the 14th. The chase was back on and the feverish fans following him knew it and were willing him on.
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At the short 16th — nicknamed “Calamity Corner” — he put his tee shot to 12 feet and drained the putt, sparking the late crowd in the grandstand to rise to their feet, roaring him on.
One. More. Birdie.
Drama on 17 as his drive caught the right rough, but McIlroy carved it out onto the green. Agonisingly, the lengthy birdie putt stayed out.
The task was now simple. McIlroy required a birdie on the 18th, in the advancing dusk, to make it through to the weekend.
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‘Going to hurt for a bit’
From a perfect position in the fairway, Mclroy struck his approach in to the darkening sky, eyeing it up and down as it soared towards the green. But it was a touch left, and the groan from the diehards in the grandstand told you the result. The ball dribbled down a hollow to the left of the green. Holing his chip wasn’t impossible but unlikely.
McIlroy was roared towards the green as if he were walking up the last as the victor on Sunday and he took off his cap to acknowledge their applause.
He stalked the shot, no doubt uttering in his head a line he’d repeated many times as a youngster: “This…to make the cut in the Open.” Or maybe not.
It was a decent effort. But he took two to get down and it all added up to 65, the best round of the week by one, but still not good enough.
How he will rue those wasted shots Thursday.
He said in the build up he would probably cry if he won, but he was equally watery-eyed talking to the media afterward.
“Part of me is very disappointed not to be here for the weekend. I’m emotional but happy with how I played,” he told Sky Sports.
“The support I got out there was incredible. Yesterday gave me a mountain to climb but I dug in and showed good resilience.
“It’s going to hurt for a bit. I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time.
“I didn’t play my part but everyone in Northern Ireland came out to watch me and played theirs.”
He later told reporters: “I will look back on this day with nothing but fond memories and positivity. I wasn’t coming here to produce any sort of symbolism. But to see everyone out there cheering for one cause was pretty special.
“I really felt the love from the crowd, so many of them out there willing me on and wanting me to be there for the weekend.”
He will have to wait until next year to continue his quest for a first major since 2014 — and the final leg of the career grand slam at the Masters.
McIlroy’s countryman Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion who was born and bred in Portrush, made the cut with no room to spare, but Portrush resident Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion, also missed out.
Instead, Ireland’s Lowry et al. take center stage over the weekend.
Lowry has already become something of a crowd favorite at Royal Portrush, a place he knows well.
“It [the reception] was incredible right form the first hole,” he told reporters Friday.
“You can’t but smile, you can’t but laugh how it is. There’s no point trying to shy away from it. It’s an incredible feeling, getting applauded onto every green, tee box. I’m out there giving my best, trying to do my best for everyone, I suppose.”