An emotional Rory McIlroy admitted his early departure from his home Open was full of contradictions as a missed cut left him bitterly disappointed but still immensely proud.
The Florida-based Northern Irishman felt he reconnected with “his people” as thousands willed him on in his birdie charge to get to the necessary mark of one over par.
He said the support he received hit him “like a ton of bricks” after shooting a 65, which included seven birdies but, crucially, one bogey and, having massively improved on his opening 79, he felt he had restored some pride.
“It’s mixed emotions. I’m disappointed, but I’m happy,” said the 30-year-old, from Holywood, near Belfast, who won the Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool in 2014.
“I am disappointed not to be here for the weekend but unbelievably proud of the way I handled myself today, coming back after what was a very challenging day yesterday.
“But today was one of the most fun rounds of golf I have ever played. It is strange standing here and saying that having had a bit of success and won this championship before, and just to be battling to make the cut.
“To play in front of those crowds and to feel that momentum and really dig in, it’s going to be a tough one to get over.
“I’ll probably rue the finish yesterday, dropping five shots on the last three holes, but I felt like I gave a good account of myself today and I can leave here with my head held high.”
McIlroy birdied the third and seventh to reach the turn in 32 before rattling in a hat-trick of birdies from the 10th and bounced back from a bogey on the 13th to pick up another shot on the next.
The former world number one picked up another on the daunting 16th, where he carded a double bogey on Thursday by losing concentration and missing a tap-in, but was unable to find the birdie he needed on the last two holes.
Nevertheless, the reception he got as he finished off at the 18th was special.
“I’m full of gratitude to every single one of the people who followed me to the very end and were willing me on,” he added.
“As much as I came here at the start of the week saying I wanted to do it for me I was doing it just as much for them.
“I wanted to be here for the weekend. Selfishly I wanted to feel that support for two more days.
“I wasn’t coming here to try and produce any sort of symbolism or anything like that but to see everyone out there sort of cheering on one cause – cheering for the same thing – was pretty special. And that thing was me, fortunately.
“I will look back on this day with nothing but fond memories and fondness, positivity.”
Asked whether he felt he had connected with his own people, McIlroy added: “Yeah, for sure, definitely.
“The last week has been a real eye-opener for me. Sometimes you’re so far away and you forget about all the people that are cheering you on back home.
“And then you come and play in front of them. It definitely hit me like a ton of bricks today.”
It was not the ending McIlroy dreamed of but the support of the crowd offered some consolation.
“It’s a moment I envisaged for the last few years, it just happened two days early,” he said.
“I don’t get back home as often as I used to, when I’m playing over in the States or wherever I’m playing in the world.
“It’s hard to feel that support from your home people, I guess. To have that many people out there following me, supporting me, cheering my name, it meant the world to me.
“Obviously what happened yesterday was a bit of an anomaly but I felt today I showed the real Rory McIlroy and the golf that I can play.”