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McIlroy: Meltdown made me stronger

IF Rory McIlroy brought a single demon back here to where this time last year some feared his career might have been destroyed before it truly began, all the evidence is that the little blighter did not make it through US customs.

IF Rory McIlroy brought a single demon back here to where this time last year some feared his career might have been destroyed before it truly began, all the evidence is that the little blighter did not make it through US customs.

Another possibility is that having seen the assurance with which an apparently broken 21-year-old has returned to the scene of his torment, the coolness he is displaying before a duel with Tiger Woods that is being described with increasing frequency as the “only story in town”, the demon has simply scampered off into the pine trees.

What was absolutely certain yesterday was that McIlroy looked about as vulnerable as some gnarled old champion who knows every inch of his game's trickiest terrain.

No, of course, he was quick to say, such a declaration would be somewhat premature despite the splendour of his redemption a few months later at the US Open, but the truth about himself he was willing to claim is that he may just be one of the quickest healers in the history of a game.

The suggestion came in his sure handling of the huge pressure of expectation building around him here these last few days.

“I think as golfers we understand that we lose more than we win. We only win a number of times and every other time we are not lifting the trophy. It's not a failure but you don't win, so maybe you have to get used to living with some disappointment.

“Maybe I've just got the mind-set that I handle it a little better than others and looking back to last year I think maybe the vital thing was that I understood that I had many more chances to win a major or a Masters. It's only golf, you know.

“It's nice to be getting all this praise but you have to take it with a pinch of salt. I'm nowhere near the achievements of Tiger. Hopefully, I'll get somewhere close to that point.”

If that might be a version of golfing heaven, it is one which McIlroy insists can wait.

There is, he says, an obligation also to enjoy the experience of the journey. Augusta National threatened to be the killing ground of his best hopes, but he knows now that it will always be the place where he learned some of his most significant lessons, both as a golfer and a man.

“I know I'm stronger now as both a player and a person and that has come to me very strongly this last week or so. Definitely a lot of things have changed in me over the last year.

"I'm the same person, I know, but the difference is my attitude. This is stronger. I came here last year hoping to do well – this time I come with a much stronger feeling about wanting to win, to get into contention and stay there.”

Last week over lunch in the clubhouse his feeling for the course and all that had happened on it down the years, he was a little surprised to learn, had become almost proprietorial.

“This is my fourth visit here,” he says, “and each time I feel a little more excited. I felt this so strongly over that lunch. Over a few years, you feel very much part of it.”

Naturally, because of the time and the place, McIlroy is grilled relentlessly over that time between the nightmare of the back nine at Augusta and the brilliant new dawn that came to him a few months later at the Congressional Club.

Demons

Yes, of course, there were a few demons to shoo away. One morning a short time later he wept under the gentle probing of his mother as to his state of mind – and felt immensely better for it.

Most liberating though was a call from Greg Norman soon after the long Sunday afternoon.

“It was great that he took the trouble to do it,” says McIlroy. “You must try to create this bubble around yourself and get into it.”

It left just one question in the brightening day. How well can Tiger move the last of his demons? He should know that the young gun at his shoulder appears to be doing a remarkable job.


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