Rory McIlroy never got a grip on his golf swing or his putter in the final round of the Masters, but he controlled beautifully the one thing he could: his attitude. Ever heard an athlete deal with total personal failure more forthrightly? The best young player anyone has seen in a long time came apart on the back nine of Augusta, but the way he pulled himself together when it was over was one of the more promising things he has done in his short career.
McIlroy is only 21, so it’s hard to predict how many major championships he has ahead of him. But we all know this much: When we hear a lot of talk from a guy who just lost big about how unfair life is and how he could never get a break, we can be pretty sure he won’t win the next one, either. The real champions don’t complain they got sand kicked in their face. They man up, admit a weakness — and join Charles Atlas.
“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.
“I like the way you handled yourself,” Nelson told him. “I think I can help you.”
He told Watson he had played a little fast, and lost his rhythm. What happened to McIlroy was actually fairly predictable: He was entirely too confident entering the final round after committing just three bogeys, and then got slammed by pressure.
“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.