No one really knows what will happen when the 22-year-old Rory McIlroy turns off Washington Road and drives down Magnolia Lane in a matter of weeks. The demons which so publicly turned his brain to mush and brought him close to tears on the 13th tee a year ago, are not expected to return. After all, the Rory McIlroy of today is a changed man; and we’re not just talking about how he has replaced a lot of body fat with lean muscle. He has a new girlfriend, a new manager and a Major. Just as importantly, by most people’s reckoning, (if not quite yet the Official World Golf Rankings) he is the best player on the planet right now.
But Augusta National is a unique and spooky place. The National, as the locals call it, is one of those places where mistakes are magnified; where (excusing the mixed metaphors) if you don’t take your medicine, things very easily start to snowball.
“When I get to the 10th tee for the first time,” Rory tells Golf World at the Honda Classic, “I will obviously think a little bit about what happened there 12 months ago. But only for a little while. I may take a sneeky look over to where I was. Hopefully, this year, I won’t see those cabins quite so close up! I don’t look at it as revenge really.
It would just be great to put myself in a position to win again. And, if I can do that, it will be great to see if I can handle things a little bit better!”
So far in his short career, Augusta National has not been a particularly happy hunting ground for Rory; and that is even without mentioning his nightmare eight-over final-round 80 last year. Twelve months before this, at the 2010 Masters, Rory was at the lowest ebb many of his closest friends had ever seen him, after shooting 74-77 to miss the cut. Those of us who saw him that Friday night were left with the very distinct impression that he had fallen out of love with the game. At 20.
Chubby Chandler, his then manager, spoke of needing to ‘protect’ Rory and of trying to make sure he didn’t ‘burn out’ and become disillusioned. McIlroy himself now admits to sulking after that week.
How things have changed. This year, he has rented a big house and – unlike last year – will have his mum and dad with him. (The ‘breakfast chats’ with father Gerry were crucial – Rory reckons – to his success at Congressional.) Look also for him to exude much more positive body language. Look for him to keep his eye level all week, above the crowds; and to stick his chest out. Look for him not to be rushed (as he felt himself being by the very fast Angel Cabrera in last year’s final round).
“I learnt so much more from my Sunday collapse at Augusta than I did from the whole experience of winning the US Open,” he says. “Whenever you win, it just reaffirms that what you are doing is the right thing. Everyone makes mistakes, so it’s all about taking what you can out of them. There is no point in dwelling on the past because you can’t change that. You can definitely change what happens in future.”
There are two sorts of golfers; those who hit obstacles, lose their confidence and direction, and drift off into oblivion; and those who hit obstacles, learn from their mistakes, refocus, and make damn sure they avoid the obstacles next time around. Rory belongs in the second category; always has, and probably always will. “I looked at the video [of Masters Sunday] once, a couple of weeks afterwards, because I wanted to see what I was doing wrong. I now know. This is now where I’ve always wanted to be. I love being in the spotlight. Of course, it can get a bit annoying when you can’t go out as much as you’d like. But, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Ever since he was a kid, Rory has been improving, learning, getting better, step by step. When he turned professional, fourand-a-half extraordinary years ago, he first learnt how to contend in tournaments, and it didn’t take him long. Then, he won in Europe. Then, he won in the States. Then, he learnt how to contend in Majors. First, it was the 2010 Open at St Andrews, where he shot a course-record 63 around the Old Course, the lowest-ever first-round score in the 150-year history of the Open; but then struggled to hold on to Oosterhuizen’s shirt-tails. A month later, at the PGA, he led with four holes to play. The following April, he led by four with a round to play.
Step by step. Closer and closer. And now he returns to Augusta with a point to prove. He wants to win a Green Jacket if, for no other reason, to stop all the questions about that infamous collapse. “I’ve caught sight of a couple of Masters commercials recently, which show me slumped over, head on arm.
“I’m a lot more experienced as a player and a person than I was a year ago,” he continues. “I mean I still hit the ball in a very similar fashion, but my short game has improved a lot. I definitely feel like I am a more complete player.
“The work I did with Dave Stockton on my putting helped enormously. A lot of people thought I played too fast; but he thought I wasn’t fast enough. He couldn’t understand why I had three practice putts. He got me just focusing on the target and then hitting.”
Ever since last April Rory has been asked repeatedly by the media about the mental scars that infamous Sunday in April must have left. He says he got over them pretty quickly, “probably a couple of days”. But, we in the press are a cynical bunch. We will smile at you and nod knowingly as you tell us, and then the moment you move away from the microphone, doubt your words. At Congressional, Rory proved to all of the doubters that he was to be trusted, that he was speaking from the heart. “I was very honest with myself, and I worked out what I needed to do differently. I had a clear picture in my mind of what I needed to do and where my focus needed to be when I got myself in that position again.”
On the evening of Masters Sunday a year ago, Rory somehow managed to fulfil all his press commitments, and to speak honestly and eloquently about what went wrong. He then, almost unbelievably, got on a private jet to Malaysia with the winner; even posing with a smile on his face, alongside the Green-Jacketed Schwartzel, for a picture which he promptly put on Twitter. He won massive praise for showing such maturity and grace during what had to have been a very painful time.
“It was the only thing I could do,” he says. “It was only a game of golf at the end of the day!”
Well, I’ve got news for you Rory. There are a whole bunch of other things you could have done. You could have broken down in floods of tears like Len Mattiace, and no one would have blamed you. Or you could have gone all feisty and monosyllabic like Scott Hoch. Or silent and sullen like Chip Beck. In fact, if you had done any of these things, given the scale of the unravelling, it would have been a damn sight more normal.
But, those of us who still remember the film of him chipping into a washing machine on Ulster television all those years back, know there is very little normal about Rory McIlroy. Most normal golf pros don’t break 12 records at a US Open. Most normal golf pros don’t go to earthquakeravaged Haiti as a Unicef ambassador, days before a Major. Most normal golf pros don’t manage to laugh off a Masters Sunday 80 while in contention, with such ease and self-deprecation.
Hold on to your hats everyone. It could be quite a week.