SOUTHPORT, England — Rory McIlroy has gone 10 majors without winning, the longest stretch since he turned pro. He at least felt he made progress at the British Open, and he has reason to be excited for the next major.
For one thing, his form is improving.
Despite a horrid start at Royal Birkdale — 5 over through six holes Thursday — he bounced back with rounds of 68-69-67 to tie for fourth, his best finish in a major since he was fourth alone in the 2015 Masters.
And the PGA Championship is at Quail Hollow in North Carolina, where McIlroy has won twice. First up is the Bridgestone Invitational, where he won the last time he played Firestone in 2014.
“I’m excited for the next two weeks,” he said. “I haven’t played at Firestone for a couple of years. The last time I played there I won. And I’ve had some good finishes. Quail Hollow, I’ve played well there. Shot a couple of course records, a couple of wins. Got beaten in a playoff, as well. Another couple of top 10s thrown in there. So I play well at Quail Hollow. I love the golf course. I know they’ve made a few changes, but I’ll have some really good vibes going into that week.”
McIlroy was coming off three missed cuts in his previous four tournaments, so he called his performance a step in the right direction.
Even so, there were moments of taking two steps forward and one step back. He wasted a great start in the third round with back-to-back bogeys late on the front nine and a double bogey on No. 10. And right when he had an outside chance to make a move, he took a bogey on the par-5 16th when he lost his tee shot.
“I thought I had a chance to post a number and at least scare them a little bit,” he said about Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar.
At least he won’t have to think too much on that start. McIlroy finished seven shots behind.
LOST OPPORTUNITY: Austin Connelly, the 20-year-old in his first major, started six shots behind and in the penultimate group at a major championship. He didn’t make a birdie until the 11th hole, closed with a 73 and tied for 14th.
At stake was a spot in the Masters if he had stayed in the top four.
He also could have secured a spot next year in the British Open if he had finished in the top 10.
Connelly wasn’t hanging his head, however. He is off to Germany next week for the Porsche European Open and said he would play the European Tour the rest of the year.
“It was definitely a rough start on the front nine,” he said. “But it was nice to battle back the way I did. The main issue I had out there was just hitting way too many bunkers. I think I plugged it in three bunkers, and you just can’t do that. Happy with the way I played. Happy with the way I hit it. It was just very difficult out there. Take a lot of positives away from it.”
ROSE LOOKS BACK: Justin Rose came to Royal Birkdale looking for a British Open championship, not a celebration of his debut on the course 19 years ago.
He got neither, though he still holds a fond spot for the course where he finished fourth as a 17-year-old amateur in 1998.
“It would be a dream to win here, but this course doesn’t owe me anything, right?” Rose said. “That was 19 years ago. You don’t expect to play well here because of what happened 19 years ago.”
Rose, whose only major title came in the U.S. Open, finished with a final-round 70 and was 4 over for the tournament. He blamed a change he has made in his swing, not the golf course.
“I think all the guys respect this golf course. Everybody thinks it’s one of the best ones we play on the rotation,” he said. “I think it’s fair.”
ROUGH STARTS: Dustin Johnson thought he might have an outside chance to make a move. That notion ended quickly.
Johnson hit into a bunker on the first hole and had to blast out sideways because of the lie. He rolled a putt from short of the green to about 5 feet, and then missed that to make double bogey. Johnson bogeyed the next hole, made only one birdie and shot a 77.
Right behind him was Hideki Matsuyama, who started even worse. His opening tee shot sailed into a gorse bush, and he had to hit two from the first tee. The Japanese star opened with a triple bogey. He at least managed to salvage a 72.
RETURN TRIP: Matthew Southgate earned himself a trip back to the British Open with his final-round 65. He just missed out on a bonus prize.
When the 29-year-old Englishman walked off the 18th green at Royal Birkdale, he was in fourth place and set for a qualifying spot in next year’s Masters. He has never played at Augusta National.
However, Southgate was overtaken by Rory McIlroy and Rafa Cabrera Bello after they picked up ground over the closing holes. Southgate tied for sixth.
At least he made up for last year at Royal Troon, when he missed out on a top-10 finish — and therefore an automatic spot in the following year’s Open — by one stroke.
“I’d be lying to say I haven’t lost any sleep over it,” said Southgate.
He has only missed one of the last four British Opens. During the 2015 tournament at St. Andrews, he was laid up on his sofa following surgery for testicular cancer.
DIVOTS: Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy were installed as co-favorites for the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. McIlroy is a two-time winner at Quail Hollow and has four other finishes in the top 10. Spieth played Quail Hollow in 2013 as a sponsor’s exemption when he was trying to get his PGA Tour card. He tied for 32nd and never returned because of conflicts with the Texas tournaments. … Spieth improved to 9-5 when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour. … Hideki Matsuyama has finished in the top 15 at all three majors this year, including a runner-up finish in the U.S. Open.