Rory McIlroy stood slumped over on the 13th tee, head buried in the crook of his elbow. There was still golf left to be played, but for a long moment he didn’t move, as if he didn’t want to face further punishment from a course that had suddenly turned on him.
The collapse that began just a few holes earlier was now officially complete with a tee shot into the creek. The Masters that was his at the beginning of the day would belong to someone else.
The 2011 Masters will go down in history as providing one of the most exciting final rounds in major championship history.
And as he finally lifted his head, McIlroy looked for all the world like he wanted to cry.
“I realized then that I didn’t have a chance,” McIlroy said. “Once I hit that tee shot left on 13, I was done.”
The turnaround was as sudden as it was shocking. One moment, he’s poised to be the second youngest ever to win a green jacket; the next, he’s in desperate need of a hug.
Four shots up to start the day, he shot a fat 43 on a back nine that winner Charl Schwartzel got around in 32 strokes. The 80 he shot was 10 strokes higher than his score the day before, and 15 strokes more than his 65 in the first round.
Instead of being compared to Tiger Woods, McIlroy will now be forever be linked to Greg Norman. Instead of celebrating a victory, he was left to wonder how it could have all gone so bad so fast.
His final round score was the worst of a third-round Masters leader since Ken Venturi in 1956. The lead he squandered was the biggest of a third-round leader in a major since Jean Van de Velde’s famous debacle at the British Open.
And it all started because he aimed just a bit too far left on the 10th hole.
“I felt really comfortable on that tee shot all week,” McIlroy said. “I just started it a little left.”
McIlroy was a stroke ahead when the tee shot that will live in Masters lore hit a tree down the left side of the 10th fairway and ricocheted toward some cabins that Augusta National members use to entertain friends and clients. It went so far off line that veteran golf writer Dan Jenkins said he had never seen anyone hit it there in the 61 Masters he has covered.
McIlroy managed to get his next shot into the fairway, but his fairway wood to the green went left and he hit a tree when he tried to pitch it close. When he finally managed to get the ball in the hole he had made a triple bogey that knocked him out of the lead, though not out of the tournament.
McIlroy took care of the rest with a 3-putt on the 11th hole and a disastrous 4-putt on No. 12 before the tee shot into the creek on 13 formally sealed his fate.
“For 63 holes I was leading this golf tournament. Just a couple of bad holes and …” McIlroy said, his voice trailing off.
The day began with promise for the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland, who was unflappable during the first three rounds. He relaxed with his buddies in their rented house and watched a rugby match on TV before heading over to Augusta National for a day that many thought would end with the coronation of golf’s newest rising star.
Though he had yet to win a major championship, he tied for third in three of the last five and handled his emotions well.
His time had come, and when he stepped to the first tee and smashed a drive 320 yards down the middle of the fairway, there was no reason to believe the day would end with anything other than victory.
“I was very confident,” McIlroy said. “I felt if I played the way I played the last few days it would work out.”
But he three-putted the first hole, botched a fairway bunker shot on the second, and missed a short birdie putt on the third. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods was burning up the front nine, Schwartzel was moving closer and the whole field was tightening up.
What was going to be a romp was now a dogfight. Still, McIlroy was hanging on, even if his grip was no longer so steady.
Earlier that morning his manager, Chubby Chandler, stood outside the clubhouse and said his young charge seemed ready. There was no reason to believe otherwise about a player who was so loose all week that every night he threw a football around with three of his golfing buddies from back home.
“It will be a big learning experience,” Chandler said. “But you can only get this chance four times a year.”
Had McIlroy hung on to win, he would have been the second youngest Masters champion ever, just a few months behind Woods. Had he been fitted for a green jacket, he would have been the unquestioned leader of a group of rising young players.
Now golf fans will talk about his collapse in the same breath with Norman’s 15 years ago against Nick Faldo. They’ll compare his 10th hole with the 18th at Carnoustie that Van de Velde so famously butchered.
It’s because the expectations were so high, and the stakes so huge. History shows that players who cough up big leads in big tournaments often don’t get another chance, their psyche permanently shattered by thoughts of what might have been.
The affable McIlroy insists that won’t be him, and for that golf fans should take comfort. He’s an exciting young player with a personality so endearing you’re tempted to rub his tousled head as he walks between holes. Golf is a better sport with him in it.
The shadows were lengthening across Augusta National when his long day was finally done. Schwartzel had already been taken away to Butler Cabin for his formal winner’s interview, but McIlroy managed a smile as he walked off the 18th green and handed his ball to a young fan.
A few minutes later, fans applauded him from the clubhouse balcony as he walked inside, still trying to process the events of the last few hours.
“I just need more experience to try to hang in there and grind away,” McIlroy said. “It’s never nice to be leading a tournament and do what I did today.”
He headed to the locker room, where he cleared out his stuff before answering a few more questions.
“It’s going to be hard to take for a few days,” he said. “But I’ll get over it.”
With that, he walked away, a putter in one hand and a pair of golf shoes in another. His friends were waiting.
Monday morning he would be on a plane for Kuala Lumpur and next week’s European Tour stop, the Malaysian Open.
His biggest day had ended with his biggest disappointment.
Life goes on.