While Rory McIlroy stood on the first tee on Sunday afternoon, roars were already coming from all corners of Augusta. As McIlroy, along with Angel Cabrera and the hundreds of patrons gathered to watch the final pairing tee off, a thunderous cheer erupted from some 400-plus yards up the hill. The crowd’s gaze whirled from McIlroy toward the first green, uselessly trying to figure out what happened. I looked over to the leaderboard adjacent to the tee box, waiting for the scores to post. Turned out Charl Schwartzel chipped-in for birdie. I also couldn’t help but notice Tiger Woods had birdied two of his first three.
Rory, who appeared anxious to start the day, smashed a drive down the middle. He pulled his second shot, leaving himself with a fast putt from the fringe, which he blew four feet past the hole. Uh-oh, that was definitely not in the gimme range for Rory, who certainly misses his fair share from short range. He lipped it out and posted a bogey — not ideal, but there was a lot of golf to be played, to say the least.
I walked ahead down the second fairway, adjacent to the third hole. I was loitering in the open field between the two, attempting to multitask. I caught a glimpse of the top of Schwartzel’s head right before his takeaway and swiveled my attention back to Rory for a moment. Then I almost went deaf in my right ear. Word quickly got back that Schwartzel holed out (with a sand wedge) for eagle. Already, I was having a tough time keeping track of the action. With Tiger making a run and the rest of the field tightly-packed, I knew we were in for a special day, but it was impossible to realize it would rank as one of the most memorable in history (no. 1 in my book — forgive me, I was three in ’86).
Despite a few loose shots and some shaky putting, McIlroy weathered the front side, escaping with a 37 and a one-shot lead heading into the back nine. And then, well, I don’t need to rehash the gory details — by now, you’ve all cringed through Rory playing the 10th hole like a 18-handicapper during Monday’s media outing. And then you couldn’t bear to watch any more of the torture and/or used one of the very brief commercial breaks (only four minutes each hour!) to pour a stiff drink.
I flashed back to the first Masters I recall watching live: 1996. I hadn’t been playing golf for very long at that point (yet to compete in my first junior golf event which came a few months later). I faintly remember feeling gutted for Greg Norman who was on his way to blowing a six-shot lead, particularly when he dunked it in the water on No. 16. I was cheering for Norman — probably solely because I liked the guy wearing a black straw hat that resembled Crocodile Dundee better than the British guy who already had two green jackets under his belt already (three would just felt greedy).
Almost immediately, the Twitter world exploded with tweets comparing McIlroy’s meltdown to Norman’s (’96 to clarify — since he had those misfortunes in ’86 and ’87). I don’t remember ’96 that clearly, but we can’t compare the two since Norman had already established a hard-lucked career. I mean, gosh, who didn’t hole out or hit some ridiculous shot to beat him? After the first three or four times, you can shake it off, but after the fifth and then the sixth?? I imagine the only cure would be getting hit with a strong case of amnesia.
Sure, this wasn’t Rory’s first time shooting 80 at a major. After his record-breaking 63 at St. Andrews last July, he followed it by shooting 80 in the second round. But credit him for coming back strong over the weekend to place third. He contended at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, too. I walked the front nine with him on Sunday, but I left rather disappointed after seeing him miss four or five putts from within 12 feet(ish) — you know, the must-makes that build and carry momentum to win majors. He held the lead for a brief moment, but then left a few more out there coming down the stretch.
At the beginning of last week, I may have accidentally blurted out (hopefully in the most tactful way possible) to a member of Team Rory (whose memory that night may be a bit hazy) that it was those short-range putts cost McIlroy the PGA, and had he made half of them, he would have won (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but pretty fair). I may have added that if Rory made 60% of those putts at Augusta, he would walk away with the green jacket on Sunday. To be fair, he has his strokes of brilliance, but it’s streaky. He’ll have days like the final round at Quail Hollow when the hole looks like the size of toilet and everything goes in.
During the NetJets sponsor party on Friday night, Best mate Graeme McDowell, who missed the cut, said, he fancied Rory’s chances to win, complimenting his game and ballstriking — wait, there’s a but — “his putting has been suspect in the past.”
Back to the back nine on Sunday at Augusta. McIlroy still had ample time to bounce back. After all, he had eight holes left to play, including two scoreable par-5s. But he was gutted and couldn’t overcome the psychological consequence of the triple compounded with the other crazy emotions and conditions.
The worst wasn’t over yet. He four-putted the 12th. And then just for added drama, McIlroy duck-hooked his drive on 13 into Rae’s Creek.
He buried his face in his hands. I wanted to give him a hug.
Mercifully, CBS quickly switched the camera over to one of the eight other players rolling in birdies and conjuring electrifying roars from every corner of the back nine.
Because Rory conducts himself in a manner well beyond his years, we often forget he’s only 21 and lacks experience at the Masters, not to mention had never been in such a high-pressured situation before. I was told earlier in the week, “You have to play Augusta under the gun at least once before you know how to play Augusta under the gun. The experience you gain after that first time is invaluable.” Those words kept playing through my head with each stroke he dropped.
So did the wisdom Johnny Miller imparted in December at Pebble Beach — Tom Watson was labeled as a choker in his early career because he had trouble closing. Eventually, Watson figured it out and went on to have a storied career. Sometimes you have to learn how to lose before you can win if that makes sense. The challenge is pinpointing the problem(s)
Oh boy, this is starting to sound like the 12-step program. Good news is Rory can check off the first step: Admission.
“I just unraveled,” McIlroy said candidly to reporters after shooting 80 and throwing away a four-stroke lead to finish ten back of champion Charl Schwartzel.
“Everybody’s got a choking point,” said Miller. “it’s just whether it’s the Ryder Cup, a major or whatever.”
“I won, like, 35 tournaments around the world after that and never once did I not think about it on Sunday afternoon — you’re not going to shank it like you did at the Bing Crosby, are you? That shows how powerful failure under pressure is.”
So, what’s Rory’s choke factor?
Lee Westwood, who has encountered his own share of troubles with closing the deal in majors, chalked it up to experience and learning to cope with the pressure of playing with the lead at a major. “I have played with Rory a lot,” said Westwood. “When he gets under a bit of pressure he’s got a pull hook in his bag and he hit it on 10.”
When you start to hit shots you haven’t seen in a while, that’s usually a sure sign. But I’m still holding the putter responsible for the majority of the blame. I tried to keep track of the putts he missed within 12-feet for all four rounds. I didn’t get them all, but he left at least four out there the second and third rounds and more than half a dozen on Sunday.
Someone get him Bob Rotella’s number! Throw in Gio Valiante’s, too!
Maybe I’m completely off target (he obviously makes a fair number to get to 12-under through 54, too, but McIloy’s shaky stroke arguably cost him the last two majors). Two things I do know for sure, though. First, he has more than enough talent to ensure he’ll collect at least one green jacket in his career.
Perhaps more important, even when he’s not in the winner’s circle, he has the attitude and demeanor of a champion.
“I didn’t handle (the pressure) particularly well today obviously, but it was a character building day, put it that way,” said McIlroy.
And he’s genuine. Whether it’s Sunday at the Masters or the third round at the Honda Classic, his happy-go-lucky nature affords him with the ability to shake off a bad round and see the silver lining.
In his first post-meltdown tweet, he wrote, “Well, that wasn’t the plan! Found it tough going today, but you have to lose before you can win. This day will make me stronger in the end.”
The plan was probably closer to what his showing in ’09. Asked what his favorite memory was during his first Masters, he said, “Shooting 31 on the back nine on Sunday. I made birdie on, also. I was four-over for the first eight, so the 31 felt great.”
The next day, McIlroy and Schwartzel, who share the same manager, Chubby Chandler, were scheduled to fly together to Kuala Lumpur for the Malaysia Open. Schwartzel likely felt a tad uncomfortable going into it. I mean, what do you say to McIlroy in that situation and how do you act?
Knowing Rory, he probably congratulated Charl, cracked a joke and then took a photo with him, which he tweeted, with the caption, “Glad one of us has the green jacket on!!!” –
You know, something of that sort.
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)