“I’ll get over it,” McIlroy said. “I led this golf tournament for 63 holes. Hopefully it will build a little character in me as well.”
McIlroy came off the course a wreck, his shirttail untucked and his young pudding face flushed and damp from the heat and embarrassment of shooting 80 to blow a four-stroke lead entering the final round. He might have been pardoned for marching straight to the parking lot and refusing to take questions, or for whining about that ungodly bad ricochet off a tree on the 10th that landed his ball in the uncharted residential landscaping of the cabin area, leading to a triple bogey.
Instead he wiped his face and answered every question put to him, and had a very candid talk with himself along the way. “I totally unraveled,” he said. After listening to him, you wanted to seize the nearest child prodigy with a behavior issue by the collar and say: “Listen up. That’s what a future champion sounds like.”
Golf archivists will spend a lot of time comparing McIlroy’s breakdown to others of historical proportions — it wasn’t quite as bad as Greg Norman’s six-stroke dissolution in the 1996 Masters, or Arnold Palmer’s seven-stroke collapse in the 1966 U.S. Open — and arguing over what it means. It certainly can’t be encouraging to McIlroy that twice now he has shot 80 after seizing the lead in majors, in the British Open at St. Andrews last year after opening with a 63, and now at Augusta.
But he’s a 21-year-old who has now threatened in three consecutive majors, and already has victories on both the PGA and European Tours. If it were another player, using another tone, we might question his future. Instead, the player whom McIlroy has a chance to most resemble, and whom he should study closely, is not a folding Norman or aging Palmer, but a young Tom Watson.
Watson once famously said, “I learned how to win by losing and not liking it.” In 1974, Watson led the U.S. Open at Winged Foot after three rounds, only to fall apart with a 79 after a three-putt at the 10th hole Sunday. Byron Nelson, who was working as a broadcaster at the tournament, approached Watson in the locker room and asked to speak to him for five minutes.