The first time Rory McIlroy recalls watching the Masters on TV was in 1996. And like any other 6-year-old already smitten with the game, he no doubt dreamed of being on that stage himself one day.
Sure enough, he was. Only he didn’t play the role of his golfing idol, Nick Faldo, who rallied from a six-shot deficit with a 67 to win a third green jacket. He was more like Greg Norman.
REVIEW QUAIL HOLLOW
2011 WELLS FARGO CHAMPIONSHIP
The trek around Quail Hollow concludes with "the Green Mile" -- the 478-yard, par-4 16th hole; 217-yard, par-3 17th hole; and 478-yard, par-4 18th hole, which consistently rank as the three toughest tests on the course.
So perhaps it was only fitting that Norman, whose 78 in the final round of 1996 gets more attention than the two majors he won, was among the first to call the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland.
McIlroy turned a four-shot lead into a collapse that even Norman must have had trouble watching. He hit into the cabins, into the trees, into Rae’s Creek. He three-putted from 7 feet on one hole, four-putted from 12 feet on the next. He missed one last short putt on the 18th for an 80, matching a Masters record for worst score by a 54-hole leader.
“Don’t listen to you guys,” McIlroy said Tuesday when asked the best advice he received after the Masters.
He was smiling, because that’s what McIlroy tends to do in just about any situation. What made this tongue-in-cheek reply so interesting is that Faldo said something very similar to Norman when they embraced on the 18th green in 1996.
Norman and McIlroy found that playing the very next week was a tonic for getting over the ultimate hangover, although their itineraries were vastly different. Norman was two hours away at Hilton Head, McIlroy flew halfway around the world to Malaysia.
“I had a good chat with Greg Norman the week after, when I was in Malaysia, and he sort of said to me, ‘From now on, don’t read golf magazines, don’t pick up papers, don’t watch the Golf Channel.’ But it’s hard not to,” McIlroy said. “Obviously, you want to keep up to date with what’s going on. But you can’t let other people sort of influence what you’re thinking and what you should do.
“I’ve taken my own views from what happened a few weeks ago and moved on,” he said. “And that’s the most important thing.”
McIlroy could have done worse than reading about his performance at the Masters.
What resonated was not so much the triple bogey at No. 10 when his tee shot ricocheted between cabins, or the four-putt double bogey on No. 12 that effectively ended his Masters. Rather, it was the amazing graciousness with which he handled such a crushing loss.
He looked as if he wanted to hide on the back nine, when he shot a 43. He refused to run for cover when it was over, instead answering every question with disappointment, but not despair.
McIlroy says it took a couple of days to get over the Masters.
“It was a great chance to win a first major, but it’s golf,” he said. “It’s only golf at the end of the day. No one died. I’m very happy with my life, very happy with what’s going on, very happy with my game.”
He says he has learned his lessons and is ready to move on.
Chief among them is that McIlroy believes that maybe he wasn’t ready to win. That sounded odd, because he has played well beyond his years since earning his European Tour card as an 18-year-old in just two events.
He only has two wins, but they were significant -- the Dubai Desert Classic at 19, and a year later at Quail Hollow, where he closed with a 62 on one of the PGA Tour’s toughest tracks. And then there was that 63 in the opening round at St. Andrews last year, only to get knocked down in the wind the next day with an 80.
“I displayed a few weaknesses in my game that I need to work on,” McIlroy said of his back nine on Sunday at Augusta National.
He didn’t get into specifics, although he could have been talking about his putting. Perhaps it was no surprise Tuesday that Dave Stockton, a two-time major champion and putting specialist, is now working with McIlroy.
Whatever the case, McIlroy is more interested in what lies ahead than what’s behind him, even though the final round of the Masters could define his career until -- or even if -- he wins a major.
In a 20-minute interview, 13 of the opening 14 questions were related to the Masters in some form. He expected that, and can expect it again with a different audience in Spain and Ohio, and a bigger audience at the U.S. Open.
“For 63 holes, I led the golf tournament, and it was just a bad back nine -- a very bad back nine -- that sort of took the tournament away from me, I suppose,” he said. “But what can you do? There’s three more majors this year, and hopefully dozens more that I’ll play in my career.”
Norman received more praise for how he handled losing the Masters than anything else he did in his Hall of Fame career. He was showered with cards, notes and telegrams -- there was no Twitter and texting in 1996 -- in the week after the Masters at Hilton Head.
That’s similar to what McIlroy experienced.
The difference between those Masters moments is where McIlroy goes from here. Norman was 41 when he lost his six-shot lead at Augusta. He already had two majors, three PGA Tour money titles and had been No. 1 longer than anyone in the world ranking.
McIlroy is just getting started. He still has a lot to prove.