“I’ve been saying it all week: I feel comfortable,” he said. “It’s natural to get nervous, if I wasn’t nervous on the first tee tomorrow, there’d be something wrong.”
They were the statements of someone completely unprepared for what he was about to feel. Holding up in the final round of a major, especially on the slidey greens of Augusta, is a skill learned through the bitterest experiences. And playing with the lead — and under the accompanying scrutiny — is entirely different from what Charl Schwartzel experienced in birdieing his final four holes to win the tournament while others wilted.
As early as Friday, Watson suspected that McIlroy would have his share of struggles over the closing holes, in fact. “That’s something you can only deal with by putting yourself in the water and learning how to swim,” Watson told the Wall Street Journal. “The pressure was always there for me. I couldn’t relieve it.”
Just listen to some other former greats on how pressure affected them: “Everybody has their choking point,” Johnny Miller recently told golf blogger Stephanie Wei. At the 1971 Bing Crosby at Pebble Beach, Miller was paired with Jack Nicklaus in the final round and lost after badly cold-shanking a 7-iron on the 16th hole.
“I won like 35 tournaments around the world after that and never once did I not think about it on Sunday afternoon, ‘You’re not going to shank it like you did at the Bing Crosby, are you?’ ” Miller said. “That shows how powerful failure under pressure is.”
Nicklaus recently told of listening to Bobby Jones explain how it had taken him seven years and some hard lessons before he could correct himself in mid-round, instead of being nursed by his coach, Stewart Maiden.
“Until I learned — and he taught me how not to run back to him, when I did that — then I became a golfer,” Jones told Nicklaus.
No doubt some of these thoughts, maybe all of them, will help guide McIlroy through the difficult stage he’s in — that horribly impatient time when a player can hardly wait to win that first big title.
McIlroy seems destined to win. He’s an explosive player who swings the club at 120 mph, which makes him at just 5 feet 9 one of the longest players in the world, and he’s clearly a blazing talent. All he needs now is some good sense and sound decision-making, a little painfully-acquired know-how. He already has the attitude.