Posted by: mdegeorge | April 11, 2011

Even at most disastrous hour, McIlroy shows stuff of a champion

Countless words have been devoted over the last 48 hours to recounting every last moment of Rory McIlroy’s Sunday collapse at the Masters. His words have been parsed to extract the most meaning possible from the 21-year-old. The site of his epically wayward tee shot on the 10th hole to start one of the most disastrous back nines in history was probed as if it was the location of a brutal murder. The comparisons for the young Irishman went just short of invoking the name of Jean Van de Velde at the 18th at Carnoustie.

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Hyperbole was hardly necessary for a third-round leader at the Masters carding an 80 on the final day, the worst round ever for a 54-hole leader in the tournament’s 75-year history (not to mention costing himself about $1.2 million in prize money). He went out one-over-par, still firmly in the lead before, as McIlroy said after, he “just unraveled”. A triple-bogey on 10, the toughest hole on the course which he navigated safely the previous three days, starting with a tee shot so off-target as to almost redefine the term. It was his putter’s turn to desert him as he three-putted for bogey on 11 . The stick remained AWOL on 12, this time taking four putts before holing out a double-bogey. As the Los Angeles TimesBill Plaschke put it in his column that read like an obituary, he had “consign[ed] himself to hell while still in Amen Corner.”

The fact that the others playing just ahead of his disintegrating round made a late run on bogeys to push the final scores into the low teens had no bearing on McIlroy, whose ship had sailed and sunk long before Charl Schwartzel played the back nine as if his ball and each cup had opposite magnets in them.

Yet while moral victories are difficult to come by on a Sunday in a major, many miss the point in McIlroy’s day. Yes it was an epic collapse. Yes it was a day on the course that would leave any among us, publicly or privately, inquiring to the gods as to just what curse we had brought on our golf bags. Yes it was a day that would leave most reeling, never to recover.

But Rory McIlroy didn’t act like most of us. The examples are almost too numerous to point out, but a few if I could.

– On the 18th green, as McIroy slumped over the umpteenth putt to go awry on the worst day of his professional career, there was an odd calm to the youngster, one of someone who’d seen many more rounds of golf than the curly-haired almost-teen had. Once his second putt fell for a consolation par, he removed his ball from the cup, shed his hat to recognize the cheers of the crowd and did perhaps the most outlandish thing imaginable: he smiled. He grinned sheepishly as two-time major champion and the playing partner with the front-row seat to his meltdown, the gray-haired Angel Cabrera, offered him words of solace. As we walked off the course chatting with his caddy, he had the temerity, the audacity, to let out a laugh.

– The class and utter dignity McIlroy showed in the post-tournament press conference (despite the other ignominy that event brought Augusta National) would have been stunning for someone twice his age and ten times his experience on the tour. His closest approximation to head-hanging: “This is going to be hard to take for a few days.” But of the shot that most perfectly epitomized the sporting horror he lived for six hours with nowhere to hide, that now infamous tee shot on 10, he managed to smile and crack a joke: “I can’t describe it because I’m not sure anyone has been over there before. Not a golfer in the Masters at least.”

While his scorecard had plenty of unseemly marks, the perspective of the 21-year-old survived untarnished: “There’s a lot worse things that can happen in your life than shooting a bad score in the last round of a golf tournament,” he said. “It’s nothing in comparison to what other people go through.”

– Perhaps the most revealing portrait of where McIlroy’s head is after such a horrific defeat is his Twitter account. Almost minutes, not hours or days, after being forced to relive his nightmare by the horde of media, he took to tweeting his congratulations of Schwartzel, “Oh and congratulations charl schwartzel!! Great player and even better guy! Very happy for him and his family!” Monday, the two golfers, the champion and champion who wasn’t, flew to Malaysia together, the picture of which was posted on McIlroy’s account.

They may seem like minute details or garland placed to spruce up a charred building. But the perspective is one that could prove more important than who actually was fitted for a green jacket Sunday. McIlroy has finished in the top-15 of all four majors before his 22nd birthday and has three third-place finishes. He also plays in a sport that has a soft spot for the most notable also-rans of history (see the popularity of Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson before 2004).

As much as we members of the non-golf media might hate it (and I whole-heartedly do), this is a sport that still revolves around a superstar whose fall from grace was so precipitous and has been so prolonged as to border on ridiculous. McIlroy possesses all the Buddhist and Zen-like calmness Tiger Woods falsely professed to be searching for in countless televised press conferences and media charades. The tide of the golf world still rises and falls with each fervent fist pump on the green or slam of a driver in the tee box for the superstar whose antics still border on the infantile.

Woods has proved talent is not enough; there has to be a commensurate amount of poise and mental toughness. McIlroy has both, and it’s only a matter of time before the stars align in his favor to the degree they turned against him Sunday.

McIlroy’s resignation in the face of what had become a battle he was destined to lose was striking Sunday.

“I was trying my hardest, but once I hit that tee shot on 13, I realized that was it,” he said. “It’s a Sunday at a major. What can you do? I didn’t handle it particularly well. But I’ll come out stronger for it.”

On a day he would prefer to forget, the last sentence is something everyone grimacing at his Sunday shortcomings had better remember.

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