But just two months later, it would be hard to imagine a more complete comeback. Instead of breaking the wrong kind of records, the 22-year-old was breaking the right ones, tying or shattering some 12 of them with his flawless performance at golf’s next Major. He finished the four-day tournament at 16 shots below par, the widest U.S. Open margin of victory on record. Instead of getting compared to Greg Norman’s disastrous ’96 showing at the Masters, McIlroy’s Sunday performance at Congressional Country Club is getting held up as the second coming of ’97-era Tiger Woods.
What helped bring him back from the brink, no doubt, was the sheer enormity of his talent and skill—his colleagues on the European Tour apparently call him BMW, or “the ultimate driving machine,” for his incredible accuracy in landing his tee shots on the green. And his reportedly calm disposition and level-headed approach to his Masters collapse—Rory’s dad said he told him “I have no problem with it at all. I hit a few bad shots”—makes it sound like McIlroy has more than a little perspective on his game.
Still, I’d wager that his win at the U.S. Open might not have been as big had his loss at the Masters not been so big, too. The power of past failure to motivate—and teach—is hard to overestimate, especially if the loss is played out in epic fashion on a worldwide stage. While some might be too overwhelmed by the enormity of such a fall, those who are able to wrestle with its lessons and harness it as drive for future wins have a decided advantage over those who’ve never experienced such colossal defeat.
Had he not fallen apart in April, the young phenom might never have had that inspirational lunch with golfing great Jack Nicklaus, who told him that he had to learn to embrace the pressure. Had he not found himself triple-bogeying at the Masters, he might never have taken a moment to high-five a two-year-old fan at the U.S. Open in an effort to slow down and break the tension before taking his next shot. And had he not responded so gracefully after his epic falling apart in Augusta, he might not have won over so many adoring fans who cheered him on to victory in Bethesda.
It’s hard to know whether or not McIlroy would have won this tournament had he not lost the last one. If he didn’t, he surely would have won another one soon: his talent is simply too prodigious. But it’s hard to imagine that the spectacular loss in April did not have an outsized impact on his character, his drive and his approach to his game that led to such a spectacular win in June. Epic failures may be tremendously painful. But when they help lead to such epic wins, the success is usually all the more sweet.
More from On Leadership: