OAKMONT, PA. >> Rory McIlroy spent the days before the U.S. Open searching for his game.
The world's third-ranked player didn't find it at Oakmont.
McIlroy missed the cut on Saturday after posting a two-round total of 8-over 148, two clear of the cut line at 6 over. The 2011 U.S. Open champion followed up a disastrous 7-over 77 in the gloom on Thursday and early Friday with a wildly uneven 1-over 71. Starting on the back nine, McIlroy birdied four of his first seven holes to get back to 3 over and send a jolt into the gallery that a hot streak not unlike the four rounds he put together at Congressional five years ago was in the making.
Only this time, it didn't happen.
Whatever momentum McIlroy generated disappeared on the par-4 fourth, when it took him four jabs of the putter to get in from 13 feet. He bogeyed the par-3 sixth but arrived on the tee box at the par-4 ninth right on the number. A leaky drive put him in a fairway sand trap. He had 158 yards to the flag when his approach shot hit the lip of the bunker and trickled back toward his feet. The ensuing double bogey insured McIlroy of an early exit at the Open for the first time since 2012.
McIlroy admitted after his shaky first round he'd been "struggling with my swing a little bit" since arriving in western Pennsylvania earlier this week even though he was coming off a solid stretch during the spring that included a victory back home at the Irish Open and a tie for fourth at The Memorial in his last start.
Yet he looked befuddled at times while making his way around Oakmont, occasionally glancing at his club as the ball went someplace other than where he intended. When his approach shot on the ninth smacked off the top of the bunker and headed back his way, he looked on in stunned disbelief and will have to wait until the British Open at Royal Troon next month for a chance to add to his four major titles.
McIlroy had plenty of company as more than half the 156-man field sprinted for the players' parking lot on Saturday while the 67 who earned the right for two more mentally and challenging tours of Oakmont prepared for a hastily arranged third round.
Fellow former U.S. Open champions Justin Rose and Ernie Els also bailed early. Rose was done in by a 40 on the back nine in the second round on his way to a total of 8 over. Els, who won the first of his three majors at Oakmont in 1994, posted consecutive 75s.
Phil Mickelson's quarter-century quest for his first U.S. Open title will carry on to Erin Hills in Wisconsin next June after he shot 74-73, missing out by a single shot. Mickelson promised to stick to his game plan of playing it smart rather than taking unnecessary risks, one he briefly abandoned on the short par-4 17th.
After saying there was "zero chance" he would try to drive the green on the 318-yard hole, he took aim and ended up in a greenside bunker. He couldn't get up and down for birdie and when he couldn't convert a birdie on the 18th he ended up missing out on the weekend at the one major he lacks for the first time since 2007, the last time the tournament visited Oakmont.
At least Mickelson was close. Fowler, still looking for his first major, was not.
Playing alongside McIlroy and reigning Masters champion Danny Willett, the popular and stylish 27-year-old finished at 11 over after finding just 14 of 28 fairways and 20 of 36 greens. Fowler's score would have been worse if not for a pair of birdies over the final five holes, though by then it was far too late as he failed to survive the cut at the U.S. Open for the second straight year.
"I felt like I drove it well in the practice rounds," Fowler said. "Yeah, just struggled to kind of get the confidence built up and just go out there and trust it. So made some good swings today, though, some not so good."
Not good enough to stick around.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Erin Hills is the site of the 2017 U.S. Open, not Whistling Straits.