James Lawton: Augusta meltdown a distant memory as Rory McIlroy shows true colours
Rory McIlroy did more than win his first major tournament last night. He did a lot more than that. He set himself apart in a way that less than a handful of golfers ever have – and ever will. He also made nonsense of a hot topic of current debate.
Luke Donald, the world's No 1 golfer, had been explaining quite carefully, but for a startling lack of irony, that whereas a major title can be won in a mere four days, his own distinction took a whole two years to acquire.
To be fair to Donald, this was shortly before Rory McIlory achieved in just two days something beyond the reach of any of his predecessors in the 116-year history of the US Open – the major tournament which has always seen itself as the Spanish Inquisition of the game, the one where fiendish difficulty is seen as the proper test of a golfer's purity.
This, though, was the least of the record-shattering performance of McIlroy, who passed the limits accepted down all the years by such titans as Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, when he went 13-under, then 14. Records are records, however they come, but never, you have to suspect, have they represented quite such a sublime expression of the beauty and coherence of a player of huge natural gifts.
From the 22-year-old Ulsterman there was a still more impressive proposition – and it was one that had the whole world of golf fretting over its delivery last night.
It was that in a little more than two months he had done more than repair the potentially shattering psychological damage of his unraveling on the last day at Augusta, when he lost a four-stroke lead in a nightmare of a round of 80 which took him into the shadows of the Butler Cabin, where his earlier brilliance was supposed to have been dressed in the green jacket of the US Masters – the fabled reward for the youngest and most demonstrably gifted champion since Tiger Woods claimed the honour 14 years earlier.
Some shocked observers spoke in the rough shorthand of sport. They talked about a choke to rival that of Greg Norman in 1996, they suggested that this was a blow from which McIlroy might never recover.
For three days at the Congressional Country Club in Maryland, McIlroy not so much mocked such fatalism as dismissed it as the workings of darker, less optimistic natures. The fears perished against the serenity of his game, the perfection of so many of his shots.
If you were at Augusta in 1997, when, at 21, Woods won the US Masters by a 12-stroke margin, three better than the record of Jack Nicklaus, and finished 18-under, events at Bethesda brought an overwhelming invasion of déjà vu. It was, above all else, the certainty of the shot-making, the flawless arc of his clubs, which made you believe that last night was not to be another shocking denouement, but a celebration.
But, then, what precisely would we be celebrating if and when McIlroy came marching in triumph to the clubhouse which seemed nothing so much as another battlement built by the prosperity of upper-class America?
It would be a reminder that in every corner of sport there is ample reason to believe in the emergence of certain performers who can not only outstrip all their rivals but also define all over again the separation between players who can achieve great success and those who refuse to believe that there are limits on their powers of expression.
Woods had it for so long and, who knows, he may yet fashion such hauteur again under the challenge of a new messiah. Sergio Garcia was a boy prodigy in his time, but now he fights against recurring blows to his nerve. Donald, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter can all point to their amassing of points and take legitimate pride in their high rankings and vast earnings – for Westwood there is also special credit for his recovery of status in recent years – but for three days they were made to feel the same kind of marginalisation suffered by the generation scorched by the firestorm of the Tiger's first brilliance.
Last night, they were cast as onlookers to a drama that was made no less intense by the fact that McIlroy had slept on an eight-stroke lead.
The fact was indelible enough. McIlroy may have been routing his demons with a stunning virtuosity, but he hadn't killed them off. They are as resilient as bacteria and they have never been known to raise the white flag.
So it meant that, in all his glory McIlroy could not dismiss entirely the possibility of new shadows, new erupting fears. When he walked to the first tee he had one insistent resolve. It was to play the game he had shown the world for three whole days. It sounded so simple when he said it quickly but then he joined the doughty Korean YE Yang and resumed his walk into golf history.
Only a fool would have dismissed the perils and if we ever doubted it we know now that Rory McIlroy is anything but that. This, however, did not alter a gut-churning fact. He still had to get in safely. He still had to drive home the reality of some of the greatest days golf has ever seen. that he did it so glouriously is the latest wonder of the sporting life.