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so close Gutted Rory McIlroy embraces Olympic spirit after being pipped for medal

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Rory McIlroy of Ireland embraces a member of his team after being eliminated in the bronze medal play-off. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Rory McIlroy of Ireland embraces a member of his team after being eliminated in the bronze medal play-off. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Rory McIlroy of Ireland embraces a member of his team after being eliminated in the bronze medal play-off. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Rory McIlroy is determined to return and claim a medal in Paris 2024 after he was eliminated on the third extra hole of a seven-man playoff for Olympic bronze in Tokyo.

The Holywood star closed with a battling, four-under 67 to finish three strokes behind American Xander Schauffle, who made a clutch up and down for par at the last, rolling in a five footer for par to deny Slovakia’s Rory Sabbatini Olympic gold at Kasumigaseki Country Club as CT Pan went on to claim bronze.

Asked if the OIympics meant more to him now, McIlroy said: “Yeah, it does, it makes me even more determined going to Paris and trying to pick one up. It's disappointing going away from here without any hardware.

“I’ve been saying all day I never tried so hard in my life to finish third. But it's been a great experience, today was great day to be up there in contention for a medal, certainly had a different feeling to it than I expected.

“I'm already looking forward to three years time and trying to go at least one better but hopefully three better.”

South Africa-born Sabbatini (45) shot an Olympic record, 10-under 61 to set the target at 17-under but Schauffele, who was four clear after eight holes, recovered from a bogey at the 14th with a brave birdie at the 17th and a gutsy up and down from nearly 100 yards for par at the last to become Olympic champion on 18-under after a final round 67.

“Just in shock,” Schauffele said. "I was trying so hard to just stay calm. Hit a terrible drive on 18, had to make a sort of sloppy par and fortunately hit it close enough to sort of have a high percentage putt at roughly four, five feet. But, man, it was stressful. I made that putt and it was just a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and just very relieved and happy, of course."

McIlroy had a 15 footer at the last to get to 16-under but he missed and could have been denied the chance to battle for bronze had Paul Casey (68) and Hideki Matsuyama (69) not missed for birdies on the final green.

That left Casey and Matsuyama in a seven-way tie for third with McIlroy, Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan (63), American Collin Morikawa (63), Chile’s Mito Pereira (67), Sebastián Muñoz (67) on 15-under.

In the end, Casey and Matsuyama bogeyed the first extra hole, the 18th, leaving just five players heading to the 189-yard 10th.

All five made pars before only Pan and Open champion Morikawa remained after the 462-yard 11th, where they hit approach shots close and made birdie.

Muñoz made bogey and first Pareira from 15 feet and then McIlroy from 10 feet, lipped out, bringing their Olympic dreams to an end.

It all end on the fourth extra hole, the 18th, where Morikawa plugged his approach in the front bunker and after failing to save par from 40 feet, looked on as Pan chipped to 10 feet and rolled in the putt.

“Really happy for him,” McIlroy said of Pan. “He's got his wife on the bag there, they're the nicest couple. Obviously I see them a lot on the PGA Tour and really happy for him.

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“It's a very eclectic podium there. You've got Xander, you've got Rory Sabbatini, and then you got CT Pan. I think golf in the Olympic games, that's what it can do. It's a global game anyway but I think this only sort of adds to it.”

McIlroy agonised for years before declaring for Ireland, then skipped Rio citing his fears of the Zika virus before heading to Japan with a skeptical view of golf in the Olympics.

But he now admits he’s a convert, adding: “I definitely think so. I made some comments before that were probably uneducated and impulsive, but coming here experiencing it, seeing, feeling everything that goes on, not just Olympic golf but just the Olympics in general. That sort of Olympic spirit's definitely bitten me and I'm excited how this week's turned out and excited for the future.”

He confessed he might have to come with a more focused attitude in 2024.

He went on: “Yeah, because I would come in with a slightly different mindset of targeting a medal just instead of seeing how it goes and seeing what the experience is like.

“But I would like to keep the sort of relaxed vibe and atmosphere that we have had within the team all week, because I think honestly part of the reason I played well this week is because of that atmosphere that we have had.”

As for Shane Lowry, who was tied for ninth overnight, just two strokes outside the top three, he closed with a disappointing, level par 71 to tie for 22nd on 10-under.

His medal hopes evaporated as he bogeyed the par-three fourth and double-bogeyed the ninth to turn in 39 before he repaired the damage with birdies at the 14th, 16th and 17th.

“I'm very disappointed, to be honest,” he told RTÉ Sport afterwards.

“I went out there to do a job today and I didn't do it. It's so disappointing. I feel like I was playing the golf to do it. I played good enough all week and then today on the front nine I just didn't have it - I played lovely on the back nine.

“It's tough to take - it is - because I went out there and I really wanted to win a medal for everyone back home. It was more for everyone back home than it was for me. I had visions of bringing it home and seeing everyone back home."

Reflecting on his first experience of an Olympic Games, Lowry acknowledged that it felt different from other tournaments.

“I was anxious going out there today - I felt it. I knew how much it meant. I'd never been to the Olympics and you don't know what to expect. You know it's going to be different to every other event but when I got here it felt like a big deal.

“I wanted all week to put one of those medals around my neck this afternoon but I didn't do it.

“My year has been going well and I feel like I've been playing well. But I haven't been putting four good scores together and that's why I haven't won a tournament.”

Asked to sum up the week, McIlroy added: “Brilliant. Again, I wish I was leaving here with a medal but it's been a brilliant week.

“I've really enjoyed spending so much time with Shane and all the guys and it's just been a throw back to the good old days when we didn't play for money. So it was great. It was a really enjoyable week and I hope we both make it for Paris again in three years time and have another good crack at it.”

McIlroy began the day tied for fifth on 11-under, three shots behind Schauffele and only one stroke outside the medals.

But he got off to a slow start, opening with four pars before he got up and down from sand at the par-five fifth for his first birdie of the day.

He was five adrift of Schauffele, who birdied the first two holes, then picked up further shots at the par-five fifth and eighth holes to turn in 32 and get to 18-under.

With Sabbatini racing into second by playing his first 14 holes in nine-under, Mcllroy needed to make a move.

He birdied the sixth from 12 feet to move up to tied third but while he pulled his approach into a swale at the par-three seventh and failed to get up and down, he bounced back with consecutive birdies at the eighth and ninth to keep his medal hopes alive.

After making a seven footer for birdie at the par-five eighth, he then hit a stellar 167-yard approach to eight feet at the toughest hole on the course and poured in the putt.

He made the turn in three-under 33 and headed into the back nine tied for fifth on 14-under, just a shot outside the medals.

Sabbatini went on to follow a bogey at the 16th with birdies at the 17th and 18th to set the target at 17-under with that Olympic record, 10-under 61.

Schauffele was a shot clear on 18-under with five to play but drove into the trees at the 14th and was forced to take a penalty drop, eventually running up a bogey six to fall back into a tie for the lead with Sabbatini on 17-under, one clear of Matsuyama.

McIlroy bogeyed the 15th, however, chunking his attempt punch out of the rough en route to a bogey that dropped him into a five-way tie for seventh on 14-under.

He then chuckled as he came up well short of the green at the par-three 16th before getting up and down for par.

“I was 15-under and the guys were only 17 so I still felt like I had a bit of a chance,” McIlroy said. “I wasn't too far behind and then the bogey on 15 just sort of after that, those last few holes it was about trying to play for a medal.

“Sabbatini had already got in there at 17, yeah, so when I birdied 17 to get back to 15-under I was like, okay, trying my hardest to birdie the last to get in there at 16 and try to get the bronze.”

Needing at least a birdie in the last two holes to have a chance of a medal, he came up short of the green at the driveable 17th but bravely rolled in an eight footer to move into a tie for third on 15-under with CT Pan (63), Collin Morikawa (63), Mito Pareira (67), Sebastián Muñoz and Matsuyama, who three-putted the 15th.

A massive drive down the 18th left him only a nine-iron and while he left himself a 16 footer, it came up short and low for a closing 67.

Matsuyama had a chance to claim outright third at the 17th but missed from eight feet as Schauffele made a six footer to remain in the lead on 18-under.

At the 18th, Matsuyama hit a stellar fairway bunker shot to 12 feet and Casey a similar shot to 35 feet.

Both missed, however, leaving McIlroy in that seven-man sudden-death playoff.

“Hideki had a putt on 17 from not too far and I thought one of the boys were maybe going to birdie one of the last two to pip me,” McIlroy said.

“So, yeah, and then I had the opportunity there in the playoff for bronze. In a seven-way playoff and sudden death it's a toss at that coin at the end of the day and unfortunately just wasn't meant to be.”

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