He called it "The Holy Grail."
The 150th Open Championship at the Home of Golf.
It felt like destiny.
His game was ascending; he was ready to get the major monkey off his back.
And then Cam Smith made the turn and played the back nine at St. Andrews like it was Tiger Woods 2005 on Playstation 3, firing an insane 30 and blowing through the field and into the lead.
It was Smith's Holy Grail at the end of the day.
And it all happened so fast.
At the press conference, Rory seemed to try and convince himself he'd be back, that he wasn't going to let this loss define the second act of his career. Maybe it will launch him into his third act.
It's been eight years since he won a major, and it felt as if the stars were aligning to make this his breakthrough victory and send him on some scorching pace where we'd look back in 2023 and have to count Rory's majors on two hands.
It's easy to forget that Tom Brady went an entire decade without winning a Super Bowl after winning three of them in the span of four years. He turned a laughing stock into a dynasty.
After winning Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Brady and the Patriots went nine seasons without a Super Bowl victory, including two heartbreaking losses to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI.
On Sunday, Rory ran through some of his major close calls over the the last few years.
"I go back to the couple U.S. Opens in the last couple years, I feel like I played really well and given myself good chances. I was tied for the lead with nine holes to go at Torrey Pines. I got myself in with a great chance at the PGA and the U.S. Open this year."
He didn't even mention the final group in the 2018 Masters when Patrick Reed slipped on the green jacket.
"Augusta is going to end up being my best finish of the four, but I never really felt like I was in contention there.
I had a putt to -- I thought at the time -- to force a playoff at Carnoustie in 2018. I've been close and I keep knocking on the door. I can't get too down on myself because the game is there. It's just a matter of staying patient."
It was a moment that made it clear these close-calls stick in McIlroy's mind. Maybe they fuel him, but he couldn't respond fast enough and rev his engine to run with Cam Smith over the last nine holes.
Brady and the Patriots had some close calls of their own in those nine dry years in New England. The losses to the Giants are the easy ones to pick out. They also blew a 21-3 lead to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship in 2007, the catalyst for the Randy Moss trade that launched the Pats into their 18-1 season the next year.
That Colts team went on to beat a sad sack Chicago Bears team in the Super Bowl.
The Pats were also embarrassed by the Baltimore Ravens at home in the Wild Card round in 2009. They lost back-to-back AFC Conference Championships in 2013 (Ravens) and 2014 (Denver Broncos). Even the New York Jets, with Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan, handed the Patriots a home playoff defeat.
The noise was loud in the final season of that decade-long drought.
Over those ten years, Brady's surroundings and supporting cast changed completely. In 2005, when he lifted the Lombardi Trophy for the third time, he was 27 years old.
He was 30 years old when he lost a chance at immortality and an undefeated season. Then after that heartbreak he played barely a quarter of football before Bernard Pollard caught Brady's knee and tore the QB's ACL. Brady had literal and figurative scar tissue.
So does Rory, his came from a reckless tackle during a pick-up soccer game.
Brady married Gisele, had kids, became, essentially, an adult from 2005-2014. He made changes to his body. his hair, and his lifestyle.
The Brady story ends with three more Super Bowl wins in New England. Brady was 36, 38, and 40 when he won those Super Bowls. And then he left and won another with Tampa Bay.
Even with the close calls in the Super Bowls, it seemed that as time passed winning another Super Bowl was more like chasing his first instead of chasing his fourth.
Even Cam Smith said something on Sunday about McIlroy that stuck out to me.
"Yeah, he's going to get a major, I'm sure, very soon," Smith said.
That's the same type of language we're using for guys like Will Zalatoris and Cam Young. It's language that I'm sure Cam Smith has heard about himself.
It's not language we should be using for McIlroy, but it is because the next major will feel very much like the first major.
Rory is 33 years old. Phil Mickelson's first major was in 2004 as a 33 year-old who had more close calls than anyone can even count.
Having something like this happen in the final major of the year has an added layer of difficulty. The Masters isn't for another 261 days. For McIlroy, there's the added weight of The Masters every year because of his chase for the career grand slam which has avoided him for the last eight years.
The difference between McIlroy and Brady, right now, is probably the maniacal nature of Tom Brady. His obsession with winning drove him through those nine years and into a completely separate Hall of Fame caliber career. He optimized himself to be a football playing machine.
McIlroy doesn't, outwardly, seem to have that same drive. Or he's just less willing to share it with us and turn it into a business venture.
Brady, in a moment of honestly, might have called an undefeated season his Holy Grail. He was a helmet catch away from realizing that immortality.
McIlroy said he spent each day at St. Andrews envisioning his name at the top of the giant yellow scoreboard that he could see from his hotel room window.
A victory on Sunday would have been his Holy Grail. But it slipped away, or it was snatched away, depending on your perspective.
It seems though, much like those two consecutive AFC Conference losses before Brady and the Pats broke through for that Super Bowl win against the Seattle Seahawks, that if Rory can keep knocking on the door he'll break one down and grab his fifth major.
Who knows, maybe he'll have his 28-3 moment, too (Sorry, Atlanta).
Any way we slice it, Rory has to move on, first to the rest of this golf season and then to Augusta National.