Rory McIlroy nearly broke down crying on the golf course as last year’s Masters Tournament slipped away. The tears finally flowed when he spoke to his mother on the phone.
“It was the first time that I had cried in a long time about anything,” McIlroy said in a press conference today at Augusta National Golf Club, site of the season’s first major tournament. “I sort of let it all out that morning, and I definitely felt better after it.”
The 22-year-old Northern Irishman said he is ready to erase the memories of that day as he returns a year after the most notable final-round Masters collapse since Greg Norman in 1996. He has even found a way to laugh about it and at himself.
After taking a four-shot lead into the final day, McIlroy’s margin had shrunk to one by the time he reached the 10th tee, where he hit a shot into the trees on the left side. The ball came to rest between a group of private houses, about 60 yards left of the fairway, in an area of the course so rarely seen most television viewers likely never knew it existed. He finished the hole with a triple-bogey 7 and ended the day with an 80.
Playing the downhill par-4 hole for the first time since that day during a practice round last week, McIlroy joked that he was surprised by what he saw.
“I can’t believe how close the cabins are,” he said, drawing laughter. “It’s great to be able to laugh about it now. It was such a blur.”
By suffering the defeat on golf’s biggest stage, McIlroy said he was forced to look at himself and figure out what went wrong. On the surface, he said, it was simple.
“As a person and as a golfer, I wasn’t ready to win the Masters,” he said. “I really needed to think about what I needed to do to improve mentally and in different aspects of my game to get better.”
When he finally watched the entire tape of the final round, he discovered something even deeper. His body language was “out of character,” he said. His shoulders were tucked in. He was staring at the ground. There was no spring in his step.
“I was trying to be too focused, too perfect,” he said. “That day, I was very insular. Sort of like I didn’t want the outside world to get in, instead of embracing the situation and saying, you know, ‘I’ve got a four-shot lead at the Masters, let’s enjoy this.’ That was the real difference.”
McIlroy finished 15th behind champion Charl Schwartzel, 15 years after Norman wasted a six-shot lead entering the final round and wound up five strokes behind the winner, Nick Faldo.
Year of Change
Since the loss, McIlroy has changed agents, leaving Andrew “Chubby” Chandler; shifted his focus from playing on the European PGA Tour; and rejoined the U.S. PGA Tour full time.
He has done his best to help himself and others forget the collapse. He won the U.S. Open two months later and briefly took over the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking. He’s now No. 2 behind England’s Luke Donald.
McIlroy’s rise, combined with four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods securing his first U.S. PGA Tour win since 2009 at last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, has set up a meeting of golf’s budding star and its biggest draw.
McIlroy said he welcomes the challenge.
“I’m in a great place,” he said. “I feel like my golf game is in great shape. I’m coming back here a much more experienced player and feel like a much better player than the player that came here last year.”