Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland on the 17th hole during the 1st round at the 2011 Masters Tournament. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

It was a horrifying fall from the top of what may be, admittedly, the most challenging day in all of golf. Four of McIlroy’s final nine shots on Sunday at Augusta National were over par. One of them, a triple bogey on the 10th hole—the first but undeniably worst of several ugly consecutive holes—had the young player trying to get off a shot between two of Augusta National’s prim white cottages, looking more like a spectator than a competitor. Golf fans on Twitter snickered over McIlroy’s memorable fall: “Rory McIlroy to feature in next Batman film as The Choker,” wrote @The_Stuster.

The strain of the spotlight was just too much. Suddenly, McIlroy was on the leaderboard no more.

The physical one, at least. Despite the humiliating loss, perhaps just as striking as the young Northern Irishman’s descent from atop the leaders at the Masters was the leadership he showed in his defeat.

After his embarrassing crash and burn, he made no excuses in his post-round interviews, choosing instead to call the flop a “character-building day” that he hoped would make him stronger. The 21-year-old took time to tweet congratulations to the winner, Charl Scwhartzel: “Great player and even better guy! Very happy for him and his family!” And he didn’t dodge a single post-round interview request, writes ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski, despite going “from phenom to failure in a single agonizing afternoon.”

It was a notable foil to another one of his leaderboard companions. Had Tiger Woods unraveled in the same fashion—Woods made a final round charge but still tied for fourth—it’s unlikely he would have granted any such post-mortem, post-round chitchats with reporters. Indeed, after he finished up on Sunday, his interview with CBS’s Bill Macatee had Tiger wiping “out any good vibes with clipped answers and a smug detachment,” blogs Golf Digest’s Geoff Shackleford.  (When Macatee asked how it feels to be “back,” Woods replied “Yeah, I’m one back. We'll see what happens.”) While Rory McIlroy’s gracious post-round interview made him fans, one observer noted, Tiger’s testy one lost him some.

There’s little question that Sunday at Augusta National is one of the greatest pressure cookers in the world of sports—if not anywhere. And in order to really be a leader in the game of golf, you have to earn the experience to manage that stress and win on the course. But McIlroy’s post-round performance, especially compared with Woods’, is a reminder that sports leaders are made off the leaderboard, too.  


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Photos from Augusta National