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The Masters: Rory McIlroy's Major disappointment won’t last long

By Karl MacGinty

Don’t let one bad day, a single round, just a few hours of his young life to cloud any judgements.

Rory McIlroy stood on the first tee at Augusta yesterday afternoon — the last man out on the course, as was his rite as leader of the Masters — with greatness awaiting him.

What followed may have seen him plummet down the leaderboard, with a four shot lead being thrown away as a 12-under-par became just four-under as the 21-year-old went eight over par for his round — with a triple bogey at the 10th hole seeing the green jacket that was ready to be placed on his shoulders put back on the hanger.

McIlroy hasn’t been lauded by the great and the good of golf for nothing. The likes of Garry Player — who tipped him for success at Augusta — can see the class that exists in his game.

Yesterday, however, almost everything that could go wrong did — although that was in stark contrast to the first three days when McIlroy’s accuracy on the fairways and greens was unerring.

When that happens and things start to unravel putting things back together is a huge task and one that proved beyond Rory.

They dubbed him ‘Tiger-Lite’ on TV at the start of Masters week but, over an unforgettable weekend at Augusta National, McIlroy established himself as a true heavyweight in the Woods mould.

The path which brought McIlroy to Masters Sunday with a every chance of Masters glory 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 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.

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 7-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-1 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.

Though 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, culling €10 million in on-course earnings alone.

He bought a large home in Holywood; acquired another on the Lough Erne Resort in Fermanagh, 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.

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 4-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 3-wood. On Saturday, he drew his 6-iron and went for the heart of the green, setting up a two-putt birdie.

Much was made of McIlroy’s exquisite 155 yards 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.

As his parents watched the Masters on TV back home, McIlroy passed the long hours before yesterday’s final round watching Ulster’s Heineken Cup defeat at Northampton.

“Proud of the lads,” he’d Tweet. “They gave it a great go.”

McIlroy’s prospects of doing the same were shaken as Charl Schwartzel chipped in for birdie at the first and holed a 130 yards pitch for eagle at three to tie the lead on 11-under.

Plainly nervous, McIlroy pulled a four-foot putt as he failed to save par at the first. He sank another for a famous five after catching the lip with a rash shot out of the fairway bunker at two but didn’t threaten the hole with a seven-footer for birdie at three and missed another from short range for par at five.

Schwartzel then three-putted the third and Woods propelled himself into the picture. A phenomenal eagle at the par five eighth eased him to five-under for the day and into a share of the lead with McIlroy and the toothy South African.

As Tiger soared and McIlroy's morale ebbed, the youngster's maturity and resolve was going to be tested like never before. Major titles are never won easy, especially at Augusta.

This might not have been his time, but there in no doubt that it will come. Ordinary golfers don’t lead the Masters for three days.

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