AUGUSTA, Ga. — “Is this where Rory ended up?”
That’s the first question the man in the yellow hat with “The Masters” in green stitching on the front is confronted with. He’s the longtime marshal on the left side of the 10th hole here at Augusta National Golf Club and as each passer-by approaches, he knows what’s coming next. The question.
Shortly after 10:30 in the morning, the latest questioner is a portly, middle-aged man in a Panama hat, who’s lagged behind his three friends. They’ve been mumbling about where the spot actually is, so the Panama hat decides to find out once and for all.
Under grey skies and a late-morning haze that hangs over the place, despite an occasional cooling breeze, the marshal — who has been in the exact same spot for over 10 years — gives the answer he’ll repeat again shortly with a simple four words.
“Yes,” he says. “Right over there.”
His next move is to point to the giant, 80-foot tall Georgia pine tree about 100 yards down from his post. The patrons smile, offer a polite “Thank you” and move on to the destination. Over and over this happens. They all want to see where the carnage began. They all want to see where something so beautiful turned so ugly. They all want to see where something that began so flawless, turned into a car-crash.
Where a 21-year old kid from Northern Ireland without a care in the world, a Green Jacket seemingly already on his shoulders and superstardom nine holes away watched as it all blew up in his face.
They want to see Rory’s Tree.
* * *
“I remember watching it on TV and now that I see it, I’m thinking, ‘I can do that!'”
— Woman in a mint green shirt with her husband
To understand the end, you have to start at the beginning.
It was late afternoon when Rory McIlroy finally reached the 10th hole on Sunday. He had begun the day with a four-shot lead, ready to lap the field and capture his first major championship, but now was losing his lead. And worse — losing confidence. But he still held it after the first nine holes.
Slim, yes — only one shot separated him from the field — but a lead nonetheless.
Then came the tee shot.
“Yeah, everything went so quickly,” McIlroy said Tuesday morning. “It was more just the whole (day) — it wasn’t just the tee shot. It was way before that. It was just how I approach the whole day. I went through it a million times.”
The little white Titleist smacked the middle portion of the trunk of the tree and ricochetted left. Way left. It came to rest in a bed of pine straw between the gentile setting of two Augusta National member’s cabins. To the left is the Peek Cabin, to the right, Berckman Cabin.
And in the middle: Rory McIlroy with the 2011 Masters fading away.
All because of a tree.
* * *
“He should’ve stopped by for a drink or something.”
— Man in a yellow shirt with his wife
Tuesday morning was typical Masters.
About 150 yards behind the tree that dealt the knockout blow to McIlroy’s Masters hopes, Berckman Cabin was quiet and serene. A man who looked to be in his mid-60s, sat on the back porch adjacent to the 10th fairway, doing a crossword puzzle as Fred Couples and Sean O’Hair played through. A woman in a red blouse came out to bring him a drink, which he accepted and went back to work.
Patrons shuffled by down the slope, stopping and gawking at the cabins. Some thought they were residential homes. Others made the kind of jokes you make at Augusta National about rich people and money.
But they all stop now.
Not because of the cabins, but because of the tree.
* * *
“It had to be one of these trees …”
— Man in a pink shirt with two friends
Augusta National Golf Club often feels like a national park.
It’s old. It’s filled with history. There are places that, when you get to go there, you have to visit: Amen Corner. The Live Oak. The Eisenhower Tree. The Par-3 course. Ike’s Pond. Rae’s Creek.
Rory’s Tree has joined them.
“I played here last week and I did ask my caddie, ‘Where exactly was Rory?'” Luke Donald said Tuesday. “And he goes, ‘You know, there wasn’t a single person that doesn’t go by here that asks where Rory’s ball was.'”
It’s become part of the pilgrimage. In the span of over an hour Tuesday morning, more than 50 people took pictures in front of the tree. The way the ropes are laid out on the 10th hole, you’re half of an arm length away from the tree.
“When you see how short it is, you realize just how badly he pulled it,” says Steve Karakatsanis, who came down from Toronto with his three friends to spend the day as part of a golf trip. “I think I’ve hit that shot before.”
Not with The Masters on the line. Not with a one-shot lead and a pack of the world’s best golfers breathing down your neck. But the second McIlroy’s ball cracked the tree and bounced between the pristine white cabins, it spelled the end. He would make a triple bogey, go on to lose the lead for good and shot a final-round 80.
Those are all semantics. All people remember is the 10th hole on Sunday.
And the tree.
“To be honest, it was such a blur,” McIlroy said. “It was really hard to remember.”
* * *
“I didn’t know these were over there until he did that!”
— Man in a yellow shirt.
Could you come back from something as gut-wrenching, soul-crushing and potentially career-altering like McIlroy has? Could you take the worst, most humiliating defeat on the biggest stage and return to the same setting to try and do it all over again? Could you do what McIlroy has done twice this week — and a handful of other times in the weeks leading up to this tournament — and stand in the same spot where it all went so horribly wrong, trying to make it right?
The 22-year old not only has had the confidence to stand on the 10th tee box, where his infamous tree is in view, to do that — but also have a sense of humor about it all.
“Not really,” he said when asked if there were any demons to confront on the 10th hole. “I mean, I can’t believe how close the cabins are —they are only 50 yards off the tee. But you know, look, it’s great to be able to laugh about it now.”
It admittedly took some time, but McIlroy got past what happened on Sunday here last year. He would rebound two months later at the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club outside of Washington, D.C. He bulldozed the field in historic fashion, tearing the course apart, shooting a 16-under par final score and winning by eight strokes.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “I think one of the things I learned was that as a person and as a golfer, I wasn’t ready to win The Masters. Wasn’t ready to win a major. I really needed to think about what I needed to do to improve mentally and in different aspects of my game to get better. I felt like I did that.”
Still, there was what happened at Augusta National.
He finally got to a point where he could watch the tape from the final round and inspect the collapse more closely.
“For me, it was trying to be too focused, too perfect,” McIlroy said. “I don’t know. For me, I feel like myself, I’m more relaxed. I sort of have a bounce in my step and sort of a heads-up looking around at other people. That day, I felt like from watching the tape back, I was always looking at the ground.
“I was very insular. My shoulders were a little bit like (hunched over). Sort of like I didn’t want the outside world to get in instead of embracing the situation and saying, ‘You know, I’ve got a four-shot lead at The Masters, let’s enjoy this.’ That was the real difference.”
* * *
“Nick Faldo said he’s never seen a ball go that far left.”
— Man in a black shirt with his friend
What everyone wants to see when they find Rory’s Tree is the spot.
Most are amazed that its so short of where a normal PGA Tour player hits a ball. One more than one occasion, fans will walk past the cluster of trees where McIlroy’s ball hit and take pictures of a tree further down along the fairway. After all, it seems inconceivable that one of the best players in the world — a player who was on cruise control for the first three days last year — could have driven the ball less than 200 yards.
“Obviously the first time I played the back nine last week, there’s memories that you probably don’t want,” McIlroy said with a twinge of dark humor. “It’s fine. I got that all out of the way and you know, just looking forward to this week and looking forward to trying to put myself in contention to try and win this thing.”
The tree will be there again this week, lurking on the left side of the fairway. As it usually is, it’ll be surrounded by fallen pine cones and loose needles strewn about on the grass. People will ask if that’s The Tree where it all came crashing down for McIlroy last year. They will make jokes, take pictures and stare in bewilderment how one 80-foot Georgia pine tree could cause so much damage.
But it did.
And now for the rest of time at Augusta National, that otherwise ordinary pine giant is now a part of the fabric of this place and this tournament.
It’s Rory’s Tree now.
“I just had a quick glance on the way past, walking down the middle of the fairway last week,” McIlroy said with a smirk. “And hopefully I’ll do the same thing during the week this week.”
Contributor Brendan Prunty is the golf writer for the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed at Twitter.com/BrendanPrunty. This is his second Masters tournament.