Rory McIlroy: Surviving a meltdown
McIlroy not the first to succumb to pressures of leading on last day of a major, but he must learn to putt when heat is on if he's to recover
Rory McIlroy walked to the 10th tee at Augusta National on Sunday afternoon believing he could still emerge from the final round of the Masters wearing the Green Jacket.
Minutes later, golf's greatest young talent was being fitted out for sackcloth and ashes.
McIlroy took a savage beating on that back nine at Augusta. The blows to his psyche and confidence were as heavy as any inflicted by Mike Tyson in the boxing ring.
Golf may seem like a genteel game, yet few other sportsmen must ever endure the horrific, slow-broil savagery of a final-day meltdown at the Masters.
If it was football or any other team sport, McIlroy would have been yanked straight off the field by his coach after that nightmare triple-bogey at 10; in boxing, the referee might have stepped in.
Yet there's no white towel in golf. McIlroy had to stagger on to a three-putt bogey at hole 11. And on to a nightmarish double-bogey five at 12, where his head was reeling so badly and his self-belief was so utterly spent that he four-putted, missing three of them from inside three feet.
And on to the 13th, where he hooked his tee shot into Rae's Creek. It was almost too painful to watch as McIlroy, knowing his dream of winning the Masters had died, leaned heavily on his driver, his head bowed in submission.
Yet his struggle was far from over. For another hour and a quarter, he laboured, almost mocked by the roars stirred by Charl Schwartzel in the group ahead as the South African marched to a memorable victory.
Schwartzel, two strokes clear at the top after his sensational four-birdie finish, was already beaming in a bear-like embrace from his and McIlroy's agent Andrew 'Chubby' Chandler as the Holywood youngster made his lonely way off the the final green.
McIlroy's final-round 80 ranks alongside that of Ken Venturi in 1956 as the worst posted by a 54-hole leader in Masters history. The four-stroke advantage going into Sunday is the biggest surrendered by a leader in a Major since Jean van de Velde's collapse at the last hole of the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie.
McIlroy's nightmare was painfully reminiscent of the most infamous collapse in history, endured by Greg Norman in 1996 at Augusta, when he led the field by six on the first tee and trailed Nick Faldo by five after his closing 78.
There was sympathy from the Augusta patrons. McIlroy admitted he was grateful but faintly embarrassed to be applauded onto the final few greens, while he was moved by the ovation be received by spectators on the clubhouse balcony as he trudged past on his way to the locker-room.
"I don't know if people were just feeling sorry for me or what, but I appreciate it," he said.
They were, deeply so. As were his fellow professionals, many of whom offered words of support and encouragement.
England's world No 3 Luke Donald captured the mood when he posted this tweet after finishing tied fourth with Tiger Woods: "My heart goes out to Rory McIlroy, best talent in golf in my opinion. I'm sure his closet will be stuffed with Green Jackets in future."
Yet as a new week dawned in Augusta yesterday and McIlroy began turning his attentions -- along with Schwartzel and 2010 British Open-winner Louis Oosthuizen -- to the Maybank Malaysian Open, serious questions had to be faced, especially the likely long-term implications of Sunday's trauma.
McIlroy will be scarred by this experience. That's the view of his captain at last October's Ryder Cup, Colin Montgomerie, who knows only too well the bitter disappointment of choking up a gilt-edged chance of victory at a Major.
Looking back to his own final-hole collapse at the 2006 US Open, when he made double-bogey from mid-fairway with a first Major title at his mercy, Monty admitted: "It took me a few months to get over it. The other four or five Majors I was runner-up in, it was other people doing well. But that was my fault and Rory must feel the same.
"I just hope he has as many sympathetic voices in his ear as possible over the next few months. He will learn from this and next time when he's in that position, he will pull through."
Days short of his 43rd birthday at Winged Foot, Montgomerie would never again make an impact at the Majors. Indeed, he would win only once more, the following year's Smurfit Kappa European Open, on the European Tour.
Norman, who was 41 in 1996, had a 20-year advantage over McIlroy when it came to dealing with by far the most damaging of his many final-day Major meltdowns. Though already a two-time Major-winner at the time of his cataclysmic collapse at Augusta, the White Shark was never quite so great again, even if he did manage to pick up a couple of PGA Tour wins the following year.
Padraig Harrington offered valuable insight into the massive issues at stake for the world's elite golfers as they bid for glory on the final day at a Major.
"You really put your neck on the line," he said in the days after beating Sergio Garcia in a play-off for the British Open title at Carnoustie in 2007.
The Dubliner added that if he had lost after a shambolic double-bogey six on the final hole, his self-esteem would have taken such a battering, he would "only be talking to people though my letterbox for the next few months".
One only has to look at how far Sergio Garcia's star has fallen on the fairways since Harrington eclipsed him at Carnoustie and turned him over once again at the climax to the 2008 US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.
Now 31, the gifted Spaniard has had other issues in his personal life, but it's staggering how one of the best ball-strikers in the game (a gift he shares with McIlroy) cannot putt consistently well enough these days to sustain a meaningful challenge at the Majors.
For all his flair, Van de Velde had won only once on the European Tour before that comedy of errors in the Barry Burn at the climax to the 1999 British Open, at the age of 33.
That the Frenchman has only won once on the Tour since, the 2006 Madeira Open, can be put down as much to the injuries and illness which plagued him in the new Millennium as any fallout from Carnoustie.
Of far more pertinence to McIlroy as he bids to recover from Sunday's massive setback, is the recovery made by Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney after equally heavy reversals on the Major stage last season.
Johnson went into the final day of the US Open three ahead of the field but had surrendered that lead to ultimate winner Graeme McDowell within three holes as he made a quadruple-bogey at Pebble Beach's second and a double at the third.
The unfortunate American (27) would post a horrific 82 that afternoon but rebounded at Whistling Straits eight weeks later to challenge for the US PGA title before a controversial two-shot penalty at 18 on Sunday scuppered his chances; Johnson then went on to win September's BMW Championship.
Nick Watney (26) also showed the right stuff in the wake of his final-day collapse at Whistling Straits, where he had been three clear on Sunday morning but, crushed by the pressure of leading into the final round at a Major, staggered home with an 81.
Watney would quickly recover, sweeping into fourth at last year's PGA Tour Championship before cementing his reputation as one of the rising stars of American golf by winning last month's Cadillac World Championship.
Yet there are serious underlying issues which make the McIlroy case more troubling. Though he led the rest of the Masters field a merry dance over the first 63 holes, at no time did the young Ulsterman seem comfortable with his putter, especially on the front nine on Sunday.
Missing short putts to save par on one and five and reasonable birdie chances on three and nine must have done little to settle him as he faced into the unique pressure of the back nine on Sunday at the Majors.
Though still one ahead on the 10th tee, McIlroy then pulled his drive (a feature which crawls into his game when he's under duress, Lee Westwood suggested on Sunday). The ball hit a pine trunk and flew so far left it almost came to rest on the porch of the Berckmans Lodge.
The ensuing triple-bogey seven really cranked up the pressure on McIlroy and it told on the weakest part of his game, his putting. In the same way that a small crack in a dam can suddenly become a major fissure, the youngster leaked seven putts in the next two holes.
McIlroy had led only once before at the Majors after a record-equalling first-round 63 at St Andrews last July, yet the 80 he shot the next day was nowhere near as bad as last Sunday's.
That's because McIlroy's high ball flight, a liability in the buffeting sea breezes at St Andrews, gives him a real advantage at Augusta National.
Most will point to that tee shot at 10 as the decisive moment but putting under pressure is McIlroy's real problem and until it's addressed, he'll find it difficult to shake off last Sunday's nightmare and fulfil his true potential at the Majors.