Nightmare for stunned McIlroy
FROM the cradle through Amen Corner, Rory McIlroy was destined to become a Major force in golf - although, unfortunately, not on this occasion.
They dubbed him 'Tiger-Lite' on TV at the start of Masters week but, until the back nine on the final day at Augusta, McIlroy showed flashes of his potential.
McIlroy was always going to need every ounce of his resolve to hold off a succession of challengers and a rampaging Tiger Woods yesterday as his own final push for the Green Jacket got off to a desperately nervy start, leading to a worrying succession of pulled putts.
And although he turned in 11 under par and still in contention, a triple bogey on 10 was the beginning of the end with a four-putt double on 12 sending him tumbling down the leaderboard. In contrast Charl Schwartzel produced four birdies in the last five holes to clinch a fully deserved victory as others faltered.
But the path which brought McIlroy to Sunday with a chance of Masters glory - and still with a serious chance of landing Majors in the future - began in a humble terraced house in Holywood, Co Down. Yet from the moment their son first swung a plastic club in his pram, Rosemary and Gerry McIlroy could see 'Wee Rory' was destined for greatness.
The child's passion for golf was almost unworldly. Dad Gerry lost count of the number of times Rory had to be dragged in from the rain at night, his little fingers almost blue from the cold as they clutched a golf club.
The boy would then stand in the hallway and hit ball after ball into the open tub of the washing machine on the far side of the kitchen.
Gerry held down two jobs and Rosie combined her duties as housewife and mother with a job outside the home so Rory would have every opportunity to develop his full potential. Their efforts gave him the opportunity to play elite events with other gifted youngsters in such far-flung places as San Diego, Doral and Hawaii.
When he won the World Junior Championship in Florida at age nine, the 'Gerry Kelly Show' on UTV invited McIlroy into studio for an interview, during which they unveiled a long stretch of carpet with a washing machine at its end and invited him to hit balls into the drum, live on air.
McIlroy duly obliged, allegedly hitting the target with the nine of 10 attempts, a feat which probably makes the gut-wrenching tee shot across Rae's Creek to Augusta National's daunting 12th hole almost seem pedestrian.
As the years passed, McIlroy would stun observers, professional and amateur alike with his uncanny ability. At age 13, on his first visit to Darren Clarke's Foundation, for example, McIlroy was standing on the tee at Portmarnock's par-three seventh hole when Clarke said to him: "Okay Rory, show me what you can do."
The waif-like McIlroy simply pulled a seven-iron and, with his lithe, corkscrew swing, hit his golf ball to three feet. Plainly stunned, Clarke said: "I can hardly imagine what this kid's going to do in the game."
So it continued. McIlroy shot 63 at age 13 to win the President's prize at Holywood, and propel himself to plus-one handicap, won the West of Ireland at 15, the Irish Close a couple of months later at 16 and successfully defended both the following year.
Through the Walker Cup in 2007 to his first European Tour victory at age 18 in Dubai to a seismic success at Quail Hollow last May, McIlroy acquired international renown and accumulated a considerable fortune, earning €10m in on-course earnings alone.
He bought a large home in Holywood; acquired another on the Lough Erne Resort, which McIlroy represents on Tour, and then invested in a large country residence in the Co Down village of Moneyreagh, where he has built a state-of-the-art long and short-game practice facility on 13 acres.
Wealth has also enabled McIlroy to indulge in his passion for high-performance cars and he's owned more than a dozen, including his current Audi G8 V-10 and a custom-built Range Rover Overfinch.
The greatest gift wealth bestowed was the opportunity for his parents, Gerry -- for years the bar manager at Holywood -- and Rosie to retire. They and their son remain gloriously unchanged by their new circumstances.
Instead, the most astonishing transformation has been to McIlroy the golfer, with the past 12 months bringing the maturity he needed to force his way into contention at the Masters and then stay there.
We'd seen sensational feats from McIlroy at the Majors, not least the record-equalling first-round 63 in last year's Open at St Andrews. The following day he'd lose his composure in howling winds, shooting himself out of contention with an 80.
McIlroy walked away from last season determined not only to build on the lessons of St Andrews but also to curb his youthful aggression and play with more tactical nous on the golf course.
His ability to follow up Thursday's spectacular 65, the lowest score by an Irishman at Augusta, with a solid 69 on Friday offered clear evidence of McIlroy's new maturity. Yet on Saturday he brought it to an entirely new level, showing staggering resolve as he saw off the forceful challenge of playing companion Jason Day.
For me, the most revealing moment came at 13. Day, playing in his first Masters, paid heavily for a rash attempt to go for the sucker pin on a tiny plateau at the back of the green and watched in dismay as his 230-yard four-iron bounced through the back and into trouble.
Twelve months ago, McIlroy might have been that soldier, especially after hitting a near-perfect tee shot into position 'A' on the fairway with his three-wood.
On Saturday, he drew his six-iron and went for the heart of the green, setting up a two-putt birdie.
Much was made of McIlroy's exquisite 155-yard wedge out of the trees to the left of 17 to the back of the green, which was followed by that superlative 30-foot downhill putt for birdie which ensured he'd take a four-stroke lead into the final round.
Along with his decision to back third-placed Don't Push It in the Grand National, that shot into 13 spoke chapters for the new McIlroy.
As his parents watched the Masters on TV back home, McIlroy was accompanied this week by three pals from home, Harry Diamond, Mitchel Tweedy and Ricky McCormick and they passed the long hours before yesterday's final round watching Ulster's Heineken Cup defeat at Northampton.
"Proud of the lads," he tweeted. "They gave it a great go."
McIlroy's prospects of doing the same were shaken as Schwartzel chipped in for birdie at the first and holed a 130-yard pitch for eagle at three to tie the lead on 11-under as he set the tone for victory.
McIlroy's morale ebbed and the youngster's maturity and resolve was going to be tested like never before and, after the turn, things unravelled spectacularly and he eventually finished with an 80. The picture of a disconsolate McIlroy leaning on his driver having hooked his tee shot on 13 into the water will be the abiding image of the day rather than him wearing the Green Jacket.
Major titles are never won easy, especially at Augusta.