Rory McIlroy: What happened at Augusta won't happen again
It stands out as one of the most amazing turnarounds in golf history and Rory McIlroy today reveals how, in 70 days, he was able to turn his agony at Augusta National into a record-shattering US Open victory at Congressional.
McIlroy lost the Green Jacket to Charl Schwartzel in the most harrowing final-round meltdown at the Masters since Greg Norman in 1996, but the then 21-year-old won countless hearts with his courage and dignity that Sunday evening.
Behind this brave facade, however, McIlroy was deeply wounded. When he eventually let go during a phone call to his mum Rosie and dad Gerry the following morning, the tears flowed in torrents. "It all just came pouring out," he recalls. "I hadn't spoken to my mum and dad until then. It might have been something they said -- you know, 'it'll be okay' or something like that.
"I remember thinking, 'no, it won't be okay'. At the time I felt I'd blown my only chance of winning the Masters; so many thoughts and feelings were going through my head."
Once shed, those tears would soon be replaced by stronger emotions. Pride, pain, hunger and desire burned inside as he set out "to prove to a lot of people that the person they saw on Sunday at Augusta was not the real Rory McIlroy".
Having frittered away a four-stroke lead at the Masters with his calamitous closing 80, perhaps McIlroy's greatest need of all was "to prove something to myself. That I wasn't one of those players who crumbles under pressure, who folds, or chokes.
"I hate using the word 'choke', but that's exactly what happened," he concedes.
McIlroy would leave no stone unturned in his effort to find out why. He forensically analysed his Sunday at Augusta, faced up to his shortcomings and took measures to correct them.
"I had to be very honest with myself, look at my game long and hard and find out what I needed to improve," he explains. "There was a lot of motivation. I wanted to get back in contention quickly."
Legends Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman were among those to offer counsel, while McIlroy sought the help of putting guru Dave Stockton, the two-time US PGA champion and former Ryder Cup captain.
"Putting was the thing I knew I needed to improve," he says. "That's why I went to see Stockton. He was a big help. If I'd putted well the first three days at Augusta, I'd have been out of sight by Sunday."
Having carefully sifted all the advice he got and days after an eye-opening visit to earthquake-torn Haiti on behalf of UNICEF Ireland, McIlroy, now 22, was wiser, stronger and better equipped to achieve Major success when he turned up at Congressional in June.
Augusta nightmare revisited
The image is indelible; Rory McIlroy standing on the 13th tee at Augusta National, his head bowed in despair, his face buried in the crook of his left arm.
With his ball lying in the creek, left of the fairway at the exit to Amen Corner, it was amen indeed to his dreams of Masters glory.
When McIlroy eventually looked up, we half expected to see tears spilling down his cheeks -- mercifully, there were none, though he concedes with trademark honesty they'd been welling up inside.
"I felt like crying," he says. "Up to that point, I'd been optimistic. Even after what happened at 10, I was thinking there were a lot of chances coming in. But 13 took all that away."
As he'd been one ahead through nine, most believe McIlroy's Masters began to unravel with his fateful tee shot at 10, which ricocheted off a pine trunk into uncharted territory between the cabins way left of the fairway.
McIlroy's treble-bogey seven there, his three-putt bogey at 11 and four putts from inside 15 feet for double-bogey five at 12 certainly offered horrific evidence of how even the most gifted can have their confidence and composure shredded on a Sunday at Augusta.
Yet the template of doom had been set much earlier. "If I could take back one shot it'd be the second on the first hole. That was the first time in the tournament I made a very tentative swing.
"That's when I knew I didn't feel the same as the previous days," adds McIlroy, who missed the green left with his wedge and made bogey. Schwartzel, with a chip-in birdie at the first and an eagle two at the third, had negated the youngster's lead while he was still on the second.
Dad's the word at congressional
The vast gulf between McIlroy's final rounds at Augusta and Congressional is neatly encapsulated in his two tee shots on the 10th hole at each course.
McIlroy's pulled drive on 10 at the Masters could hardly be more different than the majestic, soaring six-iron he hit to inside two feet for birdie at the tricky par-three 10th at Congressional.
As his ball touched down gently in that packed amphitheatre and trickled back down the slope towards the cup, McIlroy, still eight strokes ahead through the turn, knew the US Open was his.
Once again, however, a simple wedge shot he'd faced on the first that afternoon would be of huge significance to McIlroy. Left with 117 yards to the cup, precisely the same yardage he'd faced on the opening hole in Augusta, McIlroy this time hit his ball to six feet and made the putt. The man and his mood were markedly different.
Looking back at the US Open, McIlroy explains: "I've had rounds where I've felt under control, but not like that for a whole week. Everything clicked into place. I'd a good finish at Memorial, good practice rounds and I felt the course suited me."
However, the big difference for McIlroy on Sunday at Congressional "was having dad there. He said all the right things over breakfast, that I'd played well for three rounds and just keep doing what I'd been doing.
"It was more reassuring to hear those things from my dad rather than a sports psychologist or anyone else. They came from someone who knows me better than anyone in the world."
His father wasn't at Augusta, where McIlroy reveals: "I'd a lot of time between getting up on Sunday and going out to play. Even after watching Ulster (lose to Northampton) in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, I still had time to kill.
"If I turned on ESPN or the Golf Channel, all I could hear were people talking about me," he adds. "Greg Norman told me after the Masters any little outside influence you let into your bubble can be detrimental.
"So, I learned not to watch TV or go on Twitter or anything like that and that's what I'll try to do from now on."
No tears and no fears for the masters
In a thrilling, traumatic and sometimes controversial year, McIlroy won his first Major title, changed his management company, bade farewell to his childhood sweetheart and fell in love with Denmark's world tennis No 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
Asked for the highlight of his year off the golf course, he smiles: "I don't want to sound too soppy here, but meeting Caroline (at July's world heavyweight title fight between Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye in Hamburg).
"She understands the lifestyle and it's nice to go out with someone who shares your sense of ambition. Caroline probably works harder than most of the girls she meets on court. That's been a great influence on my career -- her dedication."
The greatest regret? "Probably what I said on Twitter about Jay Townsend (TV pundit, former pro and long-time critic of McIlroy's course management and caddie JP Fitzgerald). I got a bit carried away there. I'd still have a go, but definitely would phrase it differently."
Revealing that grim Monday morning in Augusta was the first time he'd cried over golf since childhood, McIlroy insists it'll never happen again. "It's not worth crying over, it's only a game."
He will relish April's Masters and returning to an arena which perfectly suits his game.
"What happened at Augusta won't happen again," he says. "There's no demons waiting for me there, just extra motivation to perform well and, maybe even a little redemption."