AUGUSTA, Ga. — In the aftermath of his Masters meltdown, one phone call that meant the most to Rory McIlroy was from Greg Norman, the master of the Sunday collapse at Augusta National.
Norman had four good chances to slip on a green jacket, the most unforgettable in 1996 when he blew a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo. So the Shark could speak from experience, and the kid was more than willing to listen.
“I think it was great coming from him because he had sort of been in the same position in 1996 — well, ’96 where Faldo won, but I think ’86 as well, 1987,” McIlroy said, pausing to try to get the years right. “Sorry, I wasn’t born.”
It’s that kind of humor that has helped McIlroy move on — that and the U.S. Open title he won a few months later.
Still fresh this week for the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland is how he lost a four-shot lead in the final round. There was the tee shot on the 10th hole that bounced around the trees and landed behind the cabins left of the fairway — way left.
There was a three-putt on the 11th, a four-putt on the 12th and eventually an 80 on his scorecard.
“Obviously, the first time I played the back nine last week, there’s memories that come back and memories that you probably don’t want,” McIlroy said. “It’s fine. I got that all out of the way, and just looking forward to this week and looking forward to try to put myself in contention to try and win this thing.”
Norman’s first big opportunity was in 1986, the year he had the 54-hole lead at all four majors. He sent a 4-iron over the 18th green in the final round, and his bogey made Jack Nicklaus a Masters champion for the sixth time. Norman won the British Open that summer, spent the better part of the next decade at No. 1 in the world and became a perennial favorite at the majors.
That’s where McIlroy is now.
He won with a record score at Congressional for his first major. He rose to No. 1 in the world last month, though only for two weeks, when he won the Honda Classic. And, like Norman, he still doesn’t have a green jacket.
But he’s young. He’s super talented. And he copes with success and failure with a refreshing dose of self-deprecating humor and raw honesty. He is comfortable with his game and who he is, and he’s not interested in comparisons with anyone but himself.
Even Tiger Woods.
“It’s nice to be getting all this praise and everything, but you have to take it with a pinch of salt,” McIlroy said. “I definitely don’t have the achievements that Tiger has or nowhere near the level of success that he’s had over the last 15 years. But hopefully, I can one day even get close to that point.”
Woods had never played with McIlroy until a practice round at Abu Dhabi to start the season, followed by the first two rounds. He knew enough about Boy Wonder, however, and while Woods wasn’t at Congressional last summer, he was impressed by how someone so young could recover so quickly from a major disappointment.
“He has all of makings of being a great champion for a long period of time,” Woods said. “We’ve seen what he did last year at the Masters and how he came back at the Open. He led what, seven out of eight rounds in major championships? Which is pretty impressive. So he just needs to get more experienced. That’s just from playing. He’s put himself there. Seems like every single tournament he plays in, he’s in the top 10. And that’s great to see.”
In his last 12 official events, McIlroy has won twice and has finished in the top 3 eight times. Only once has he been out of the top 10. Woods’ recent record isn’t quite that good, although he has given himself more chances at winning than the last two years. Woods comes into the Masters after his first PGA Tour win 30 months, a five-shot win at Bay Hill.
That doesn’t hurt.
“I think it’s huge for him,” Phil Mickelson said of Woods. “And I think he’s going to have a great week, because he’s obviously been playing well, and to have won heading in gives him a lot of confidence. Sucks for us, but ….”
The bookies made Woods the favorite after his win at Bay Hill — an amazing turnaround considering only a month ago he left Doral in the middle of the last round because of soreness and swelling in his left Achilles tendon.
But they have never strayed too far from McIlroy. Never mind his age, or that this is only his fourth Masters. What he showed through 54 holes last year, and how he bounced back, is enough for everyone to take notice.
And so much for those demons on the 10th hole at Augusta; McIlroy conquered them with more humor.
“I mean, I can’t believe how close the cabins are. They are only 50 yards off the tee,” McIlroy said as the room filled with laughter. “But no, look, it’s great to be able to laugh about it now.”
It wasn’t always that easy.
He cried on the phone with his mother after the Masters. There were days of reflection, when McIlroy realized he must not have been ready to win a major. He noticed when he watched videotape of the final round that the bounce in his step was missing. He was looking down, not up. Joy gave way to stress.
Seven putts on the 11th and 12th holes are what did him in. Still, most remember the 10th, and for good reason. Some players barely notice those cabins left of the 10th fairway. Not many can imagine a player behind stuck behind them.
“I played here last week, and I did ask my caddie where exactly Rory was,” Luke Donald said. “And he goes, ‘You know, there wasn’t a single person that doesn’t go by here that asks where Rory’s ball was.’ You’ve obviously got to be a bit unlucky to take such a bounce.”
Not even McIlroy is sure what happened on that shot, much less the rest of the day.
“It was such a blur,” he said. “It was really hard to remember. It wasn’t just the tee shot. It was way before that. It was just how I approached the whole day. I went through it a million times. It’s something that I learned from, and I quickly forgot about and moved on. And moved on pretty well.”
A year ago, he came to Augusta National hopeful of winning. Now, he is all business. Winning is the priority. He brought three friends from Northern Ireland with him last year. His parents are here this time.
McIlroy didn’t get into specifics on his phone conversation with Norman, which was two days after the Masters.
“He said a couple things to me that I found very useful and put into practice, especially weeks like this where there’s so much hype and there’s so much buildup,” McIlroy said. “I’ve said this before, but create this little bubble around yourself and just try and get into that and don’t let any of the outside interference come into that.”