In the aftermath of his Masters meltdown, one phone call that meant the most to Rory McIlroy was from Greg Norman, the master of the Sunday collapse at Augusta National.
Norman had four good chances to slip on a green jacket, the most unforgettable in 1996 when he blew a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo. So the Shark could speak from experience, and the kid was more than willing to listen.
“I think it was great coming from him because he had sort of been in the same position in 1996 — well, ‘96 where Faldo won, but I think ‘86 as well, 1987,” McIlroy said, pausing to try to get the years right. “Sorry, I wasn't born.”
It's that kind of humour that has helped McIlroy move on — that and the U.S. Open title he won a few months later.
Still fresh this week for the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland is how he lost a four-shot lead in the final round. There was the tee shot on the 10th hole that bounced around the trees and landed behind the cabins. There was a three-putt on the 11th, a four-putt on the 12th and eventually an 80 on his scorecard.
“Obviously, the first time I played the back nine last week, there's memories that come back and memories that you probably don't want,” McIlroy said. “It's fine. I got that all out of the way, and just looking forward to this week and looking forward to try to put myself in contention to try and win this thing.”
Norman's first big opportunity was in 1986, the year he had the 54-hole lead at all four majors. He sent a 4-iron over the 18th green in the final round, and his bogey made Jack Nicklaus a Masters champion for the sixth time. Norman won the British Open that summer, spent the better part of the next decade at No. 1 in the world and a perennial favourite at the majors.
That's where McIlroy is now.
He won with a record score at Congressional for his first major. He rose to No. 1 in the world last month, though only for two weeks, when he won the Honda Classic. And, like Norman, he still doesn't have a green jacket.
But he's young. He's super talented. And he copes with success and failure with a refreshing dose of self-deprecating humour.
Did he confront any demons on the 10th tee when he played last week?
“Not really. I mean, I can't believe how close the cabins are. They are only 50 yards off the tee,” McIlroy said as the room filled with laughter. “But no, look, it's great to be able to laugh about it now.”
It wasn't always that easy.
He cried on the phone with his mother after the Masters. There were days of reflection, when McIlroy realized he must not have been ready to win a major. He noticed when he watched videotape of the final round that the bounce in his step was missing. He was looking down, not up. Joy gave way to stress.
Seven putts on the 11th and 12th holes is what did him in. Still, most remember the 10th, and for good reason. Some players barely notice those cabins left of the 10th fairway. Not many can imagine a player behind stuck behind them.
Luke Donald was playing last week, and his local caddie told him guests at Augusta National rarely play the 10th hole without asking where McIlroy's tee shot wound up.
Not even McIlroy is sure what happened on that shot, much less the rest of the day.
“It was such a blur,” he said. “It was really hard to remember. It wasn't just the tee shot. It was way before that. It was just how I approached the whole day. I went through it a million times. It's something that I learned from, and I quickly forgot about and moved on. And moved on pretty well.”
A year ago, he came to Augusta National hopeful of winning. Now, he is all business. Winning is the priority. He brought three friends from Northern Ireland with him last year. His parents are here this time.
McIlroy didn't get into specifics on his phone conversation with Norman, which was two days after the Masters.
“He said a couple things to me that I found very useful and put into practice, especially weeks like this where there's so much hype and there's so much buildup,” McIlroy said. “I've said this before, but create this little bubble around yourself and just try and get into that and don't let any of the outside interference come into that.”
THIS WEEK IN GOLF
COURSE: Augusta National Golf Club (7,435 yards, par 72).
TELEVISION: ESPN (Thursday-Friday, 3-7:30 p.m., 8-11 p.m.) and CBS (Saturday, 3:30-7 p.m.; Sunday, 2-7 p.m.).
OH CANADA: Mike Weir, 2003 champion
NOTES: Several of golf's big names appear to be peaking just in time for the golf season's first major. Tiger Woods is coming off a victory two weeks ago in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He has four Masters titles and 14 majors victories but hasn't won a major title since the 2008 U.S. Open. ...Top-ranked Luke Donald won the Transitions at Innisbrook in his last start. ..Rory McIlroy, who matched the biggest collapse in Masters history last year with an 80 after leading by four strokes, won the Honda Classic last month. ...Phil Mickelson, the 2004 and 2010 champion, won at Pebble Beach in February for his 40th PGA Tour title. ...Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal is the last European winner, holding off Greg Norman in the final round in 1999.
NATIONWIDE TOUR: SOBOBA CLASSIC
COURSE: The Country Club at Soboda Springs (7,207 yards, par 71).
OH CANADA: Stuart Anderson, Chris Baryla, Bryan DeCorso, Brad Fritsch, Adam Hadwin, Matt McQuillan, Ryan Yip
NOTES: It’s not a major in name but this event will determine who gets onto the PGA next year.Every winner of the Soboba since 2009 has earned a PGA Tour card. The $135,000 first-place check will go a long way to helping the winner finish in the top 25 (it took $180,191 to finish in the top 25 of last year’s money list). ...Fritsch has a pair of top-10 results in four starts this year including a career best tie for fifth at the last event in Louisiana. ...After a slow start, Hadwin is coming off a tie for 18th.
ASIAN TOUR: Singapore Classic
COURSE: Orchid Country Club Singapore
OH CANADA: Ron Harvey, Jr., Lindsay Renolds, Rick Gibson, Matt Johnston, John Shin
NGA TOUR: Avoca Classic
COURSE: Scotch Hall Preserve, Windsor, N.C.
OH CANADA: Marc-Etienne Bussieres, Louis-Alexandre Pitre, Christopher Ross, Eric Ross, Sebastian Szirmak, Riley Wheeldon
ALL-AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL GOLF TOUR: Tour Championship
COURSE: Southern Dunes Golf Club, Maricopa, AZ
OH CANADA: Corey Renfrew, Nick Taylor, Mitch Gillis, Brett Stewart, Kent Eger, Kent Fukushima, Jace Walker, Darren Wallace, Adam Cornelson, Jerry Christiansen (a), Thomas Hay, Tyler Mancini
NOTES: 64-man matchplay event with the winner receiving an exemption into Nationwide Tour's BMW Pro-Am
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