NORTON — Rory McIlroy’s final round wasn’t just documented on his scorecard. It was written all over his cherubic 25-year-old face, cheeks puffed out in exasperation and red with frustration.
Golf is a humbling and humanizing game, even if you’re the best player in the world. Golf’s Next Big Thing wore his disappointing final-round 70 at the Deutsche Bank Championship the way a Hollywood starlet wears a designer dress at the Oscars, on full display for everyone to see and discuss.
The object of McIlroy’s aggravation and source of his facial anguish was his putter, which betrayed him repeatedly Monday at TPC Boston. Instead, it was his playing partner, Chris Kirk, who shot a 5-under-par 66 to take the tournament with a 15-under total.
McIlroy had to settle for a tie for fifth with John Senden at 11 under. The man from Holywood in Northern Ireland simply couldn’t summon his star power to record his fourth win in five tournaments.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the day that I wanted today,” said McIlroy. “But it’s been a decent week, a top five.
“It hasn’t been all bad. But obviously a little disappointed with the way I putted.”
There was a frisson of excitement in the air with Rory roaring into contention on Sunday with a 7-under 64. He began the final round in the penultimate pairing with Kirk, both at 10 under, two shots back of 54-hole leader Russell Henley. Local golf fans were bracing to see the four-time major winner, including this year’s British Open and PGA Championship, exert his will on the field.
But there was no Rory Run this time. His putter was an anchor, keeping him treading water on the leaderboard and stalking his way through a trying round.
It began on the first hole when he lipped out a 14-foot birdie putt. The theme of McIlroy’s day was established.
What separates the great players from the average ones is the ability to win even when they’re not at their best. It’s a credit to McIlroy and his considerable talent that he was in contention when he began the back nine, despite shooting an uneven 1-under 35 on the front side.
When McIlroy cradled the trophy at the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2012, he did it after a birdie binge on the front nine, recording birdies on four of the first six holes.
This time the world’s top-ranked player flirted with disaster on the front nine, carding back-to-back bogeys on the fifth and sixth holes — just as he did in the first round Friday on his way to another 70. McIlroy recovered to birdie the seventh and eighth holes.
But he lipped out an 8-foot par putt at the par-4 10th and now both his putter and his body language were betraying him.
He flipped his putter in the air as if twirling a baton. The bogey dropped him to 10 under, three shots back of tri-leaders Geoff Ogilvy, Kirk, and Billy Horschel.
The day unraveled for McIlroy on No. 12. He had a nice approach shot to set up a 20-foot birdie putt. But he rolled it past the hole and puffed out his cheeks like a blowfish. The putter was taking its toll.
The game’s preeminent player couldn’t have been blamed if he went Happy Gilmore after he flubbed a 3½-foot par putt. McIlroy three-putted for bogey.
Before that he hadn’t three-putted in 153 consecutive holes.
“I think today was just a combination of trying too hard, and then I feel like whenever I have played a lot of golf my attitude can get sort of . . . I was very sort of reactive about bad shots and bad breaks today, which I haven’t been the last two weeks,” said McIlroy. “So, I think that’s a little bit of mental fatigue kicking in there.”
The three-putt was an omen that this wouldn’t be like Royal Liverpool or Valhalla Golf Club or Firestone Country Club, the sites of his three straight wins before a 22d-place finish at the Barclays last week.
McIlroy was four shots back with six holes to play. But he didn’t have his A game, unless that “A” stood for aggravating.
There were still moments of brilliance for the DBC crowd to take home as keepsakes.
His tee shot on the par-3 16th landed within 2 feet of the cup, setting up an easy birdie. After another uncooperative putt on 17, McIlroy took out his frustrations on his tee shot on the par-5, 530-yard 18th hole, sizzling a 347-yard drive that should have come with its own NASA countdown.
It was his longest drive of the tournament and the longest drive of the final round. The fact that the diminutive McIlroy, who led the Deutsche Bank field in driving average (304.1 yards) is such a big hitter makes him all the more enthralling to watch.
McIlroy reached the green in two and could have finished with an eagle. But before he even finished his follow-through on his 9-foot, 10-inch eagle putt he started chasing after the ball as though he wanted it on a leash. He settled for his fifth birdie of the round.
With a win, McIlroy would have tied his idol, Tiger Woods, for the most tournament victories in the brief history of the FedEx Cup playoffs with three. Given the dubious nature and prestige of the FedEx Cup, that’s not necessarily a notable feat.
Either way, McIlroy will have another chance next week at the BMW Championship in Cherry Hills Village, Colo., and he remained in second place in the FedEx Cup standings with two events to go.
“At this point, I’m just looking for wins, and today was a great opportunity. But it didn’t quite materialize,” said McIlroy. “But there is always next week.”
This has been McIlroy’s year, but it wasn’t his day.
Sometimes you just have to face up to reality.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.