Comment: Rory McIlroy's bad putting habits returned under weight of Masters history
Ten minutes before his tee-time on Sunday, Rory McIlroy strode through a raucous funnel of humanity to the putting green.
He arrived to find Patrick Reed already at work with his putter. Caddie Harry Diamond tossed two balls towards him and, with just his second try, Rory rolled a monster in from 35ft.
The impression was of prize fighters circling a ring, studiously ignoring one another. Reed took occasional counsel from his coach but had the uneasy look of someone for whom this workplace was now too small.
Soon enough, he returned to his bag in the corner before battling his way to the tee earlier than necessary. The green to himself now, Rory looked to be putting almost absent-mindedly. Everything about him communicated readiness.
But then he went and blew his opening drive almost out of bounds. What did that say to him? To us? With Reed already in trouble down the left, Rory simply needed to find a ribbon of fairway. Instead, he almost missed the golf course.
Under the pines, he took to figuring things out for himself. He eventually said to Diamond: "So it's looking like a nine iron can get me to the front edge..."
"Yeah," said the caddie flatly. And then Rory hit a miracle.
It looked an essay of nerveless improvisation, the statement of a man with destiny in a clinch. And, of course, that would become the big, fat lie of Sunday.
McIlroy's missed eagle putt on two was tricky, but nothing treacherous. A mid to low handicapper would have expected to make it. And that was the rub with Rory. The bits that would let him down, the chinks in his game that allowed Reed to speed off into the distance while still playing ragged golf, were just bread and butter things.
Maybe nothing betrays the fragility of the human psyche like a professional sports person chasing answers.
In the build-up to this Masters, McIlroy's recent work with Brad Faxon was trumpeted as transformative. The essence of the collaboration? He'd "freed up" Rory's putting stroke.
To the educated golf eye, all of the bad putting habits afflicting McIlroy before Bay Hill found expression again as the weight of history came pressing down upon him. Nothing will ever squeeze him tighter than an Augusta Sunday as long as he goes without a green jacket.
McIlroy is one of the most thrillingly gifted golfers on the planet, but he can also sometimes look remarkably brittle when faced with the banality of a six-foot putt.
On Sunday night, he re-stated his conviction that momentum was, arguably, the most powerful force on a golf course. McIlroy encountered the polar opposite.
Missing six putts inside 10ft on the front nine, he might as well have been in quicksand.
"I can't give a good answer as to what I can take from this because I'm just off the 18th green" he reflected. "But I'll reflect over the next few days and see what I could have done better.
"Whether it be mindset or whatever, I just didn't quite have it. The putter let me down a little bit, I just wasn't quite as trusting as I was the first few days and that made a big difference.
"Then when I did get some chances I didn't take advantage."
Outspoken Golf Channel analyst, Brandel Chamblee, described McIlroy's opening swing of the final round as "probably the worst tee shot in a final round of a Major, and in the final group of a Major, that I've ever seen and probably will ever see."
That kind of rhetoric can only add now to the demons swirling around McIlroy. He'd waited seven years to get back into that final group but, when it came, the only compelling movement was in the attic of his mind.
McIlroy's relationship with Augusta now is something either he has within himself to resolve or he doesn't.
"I played some of the best golf I've ever played here, it wasn't meant to be," he reflected. "It's frustrating and it's hard to take positives from it right now.
"I think 100% I can come back and win. I've played in two final groups in the last seven years, I've had five top-10s, I play this course well. I just haven't played it well enough at the right times."
Not on Masters Sunday, at least. Not when that green jacket is on the line and an opportunity to join the immortals of the game reaches towards him.
"Golf is not and never has been a fair game," Jack Nicklaus, once observed.
For McIlroy, understanding that now will be every bit as important as exploring any technical shortcomings from this Masters. Because Augusta wasn't exploring the intricacies of his golf swing on Sunday, it was looking into his soul.