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Fear adds dangerous tariff to the price of immortality

O f all the cruelties visited upon Rory McIlroy last Sunday evening, perhaps none will be worse than the cruelty that has yet to come.

He is 21 years old going on 22. He will never be allowed to forget his implosion in the final round of the 2011 Masters at Augusta National. It will follow him around all his days. The worry is that it will haunt him. The hope is that he will one day look back and say it helped make him a multiple winner of majors.

But in the space of a few hours his identity acquired a shadow from which it will be difficult to escape. Until that moment he dwelled entirely in the sunshine of his immense talent and personal popularity. Where people once smiled at the mention of "Rory", there will now be a frown and a doubt in their minds. It will be unavoidable until he supplants the memory with a matching triumph -- and it will probably take more than just one.

The US Masters is one of those rare events which can define not just a career, but almost a life in itself. It has the sort of global stature, and historic prestige, to alter profoundly a man's standing in the world. The prize on offer is nothing less than a kind of immortality; maybe a niche kind, when measured against the giants of politics and state, but immortality nonetheless. It follows them through life forever after, all the way to the obituary. Their names will stand permanently in the books of record.

Those who pursue it year after year know that a price must be paid for a prize so great. Even the few who succeed get burned along the way. Going after it is a guarantee of hurt and remorse. For those who come close only to fall short, the pain is acute and long-lasting. But the torments of a lifetime are reserved for those white knights who look destined to complete the quest and are denied not by others but by themselves. This is where a kind of black immortality beckons.

Very few protagonists are thrust into this scenario but it was McIlroy's fate to be one of them. Except it wasn't just fate, if it was that at all; rather it was his sheer brilliant talent that had taken him to this life-changing fork in the road. The road he took was in his hands only. Which is why millions of eyes were focused on him last Sunday. Every television across the world tuned into Augusta was a microscope; the golf course was a Petri dish; McIlroy was the tiny life-form being examined and inspected.

"He has got one (arm) in the green jacket," said a bloke on Sky Sports before McIlroy began his journey. The first tremors were spotted as early as the first hole. He overshot the green and finished with a bogey. He found bunkers twice on the second hole. "His nerves are definitely jingling," said Wayne Grady on the BBC.

Elsewhere, the chasing pack was gathering for the hunt, assembling in numbers and beginning to converge ferociously in the leader's slipstream.

Ten minutes after he teed off, his four-shot lead was down to two. Within a half-hour it was gone. "He's just not getting the range," remarked someone after a wayward tee shot at the sixth. But he produced a birdie on the seventh and was still hitting some tremendous shots. The battle with his nerves could still go either way.

At the tenth he succumbed. The synapses finally overheated, the nerve ends started sparking. The messages between brain and body had been controlled immaculately for three days. Now they were sending out distress signals to the hands, the legs and arms, all the working parts that had been beautifully synchronised for 54 holes.

Like a lonely breakaway cyclist who's been reeled in within miles of the finish line, McIlroy was engulfed by the peloton at the tenth hole.

The viewers everywhere were voyeurs now, watching a common human frailty -- fear -- inflict its debilitating symptoms on a world-class sportsman. It is the dark ritual in which sport specialises: firstly provoking a deep interior anxiety, then forcing it to the surface and finally causing the psychological erosion of the person unable to keep it at bay.

Most people keep their fears to themselves; if they share them with others it is usually in private. In sport, and especially in

elite individual sports, the private becomes public; the internal becomes external; we are allowed to witness the fear at work; it is made manifest in the disintegration of a player's hitherto impregnable skills. Perhaps that's part of the fascination for people; maybe it comforts them to see the vulnerability of these modern gods. And maybe it's why they like to remember it when it happens.

It is 15 years since Greg Norman came apart in the final round of the Masters. It is 41 years since Doug Sanders twitched on the tiny putt that would have won him the British Open.

They have never been allowed to forget. Both names were invoked by the television commentators, and doubtless by millions of viewers too, as McIlroy joined them in that dismal pantheon.

He has loads of time to do great things; loads of time to prepare happier entries for the obituary which, however far distant, already has one entry after last Sunday.


Sunday Indo Sport