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The haunting Masters meltdown that changed Rory McIlroy’s career


Slumped on his club, his head buried in his arm, Rory McIlroy looked on the verge of tears.

The 21-year-old had just seen his ball sink into the waters of Rae’s Creek at Augusta National and with it, his dream of winning the Masters, a dream that seemed so close just hours earlier.

As a four-time major winner and one of the most decorated names in the sport’s history, few players would turn down the opportunity to trade places with McIlroy ahead of Augusta this week.

However, on the Sunday afternoon of April 10, 2011, not a golfer in the world would have wanted to put themselves in the Northern Irishman’s shoes.

McIlroy, fresh-faced and mop-headed, had landed in Georgia for the first major of the season with a reputation as the leader of the next generation of stars.

A strong 2010 marked his best season since he turned professional three years earlier, highlighted by a first PGA Tour victory at the Quail Hollow Championship and a crucial contribution to Team Europe’s Ryder Cup triumph.

Yet despite two impressive top-three finishes at the Open and PGA Championship respectively, a disappointing missed cut at the Masters – his first in a major – served as ominous foreshadowing.

McIlroy shot 74 and 77 to fall four shots short of the cut line at seven over par, a performance that concerned him enough to take a brief sabbatical from competition.

But a year later, in 2011, any lingering Masters demons seemed to have been exorcised as McIlroy soared across the Augusta fairways.

After opening with a bogey-free 65-under 65 – the first time he had shot in the 60s at a major – McIlroy edged first-round Spanish co-leader Alvaro Quirós with a 69 in the second round.

That sent him into the weekend with a two-shot lead over Australian Jason Day, with Tiger Woods a further shot behind and back in pursuit of a 15th major after a soaring second-round 66 .

And yet, the 21-year-old leader seemed perfectly comfortable with a target on his back. Even after a shaky start to the third round, McIlroy rallied with three birdies over the final six holes to extend his lead to four shots heading into Sunday.

McIlroy tees off from the 16th tee in his second round.

The youngster was alone in front of a group of pursuers made up of Day, Ángel Cabrera, KJ Choi and Charl Schwartzel. After 54 holes, McIlroy had made only three bogeys.

“It’s a great position…I finally feel comfortable on this golf course,” McIlroy told reporters.

“I don’t take the lead, I know how leads can run out very quickly. I have to go out there, take nothing for granted and play as hard as I have played the last three days. If I succeed, I hope things go my way.

“We’ll see what happens tomorrow because four shots on this golf course isn’t much.”

McIlroy finished his third round with a four-stroke lead.

The truth can hurt, and McIlroy was about to prove his assessment of Augusta to be true in the most excruciating way imaginable.

His fourth bogey of the week came immediately. Having admitted he expected to be nervous on the first tee, McIlroy unleashed a booming opening down the fairway, only to miss his five-foot putt.

Three straight pars steadied the ship, but Schwartzel had the wind in his sails. A blistering start with a birdie, a par and an eagle had seen him level at the top after his third hole.

A subsequent bogey from the South African slowed his charge, as McIlroy clung to a one-shot lead at the turn from Schwartzel, Cabrera, Choi and a rampaging Woods, who shot five birdies and an eagle on the front nine to send Augusta into a frenzy.

Despite his diminishing advantage and the raucous din of Tiger-mania in front of him, McIlroy had responded well to another bogey at the 5th hole, draining a brilliant 20-foot putt at the 7th to restore his lead.

The first pump that followed marked the high point of McIlroy’s round, as a slippery start accelerated into a veritable free fall at the par-four 10th hole.

His tee shot slammed into a tree, ricocheting to settle between the white sheds that separate the main course from the adjacent par three course. It offered viewers a glimpse of a part of Augusta rarely seen on the show, followed by photos of McIlroy peering anxiously from behind a tree to follow his follow-up photo.

McIlroy watches his shot after his initial drive from the 10th tee brought him closer to the Augusta booths.

Although his first escape was successful, another collision with a tree and a two-putt on the green saw a stunned McIlroy finally commit to a triple bogey. After leading the field one hole and seven strokes earlier, he arrived at the 11th tee in seventh position.

By the time his tee shot at the 13th dropped into the creek, all thoughts of who might be the recipient of the green jacket had long since drifted away from the angsty youngster. It took him seven putts to get through the previous two greens, while a bogey and a double bogey dropped him to five under – the score he held after just 11 holes of the tournament.

Fortunately, the last five holes passed without major incident. A missed five-foot birdie putt on the final hole summed up McIlroy’s day, although he received a rousing welcome as he left the green.

Minutes earlier, the same crowd erupted when Schwartzel made his fourth straight birdie to seal his first major title. After starting the day four shots behind McIlroy, the South African finished 10 shots ahead of him and two ahead of second-placed Australian duo Jason Day and Adam Scott.

McIlroy’s score of eight over 80 marked the highest score of the round. After leading the standings for most of the week, he finished tied for 15th.

McIroy was applauded on the 18th green by the Augusta crowd after completing his final round.

Tears flowed during a phone call with his parents the next morning, but at his news conference, McIlroy was upbeat.

“I’m very disappointed at the moment, and I’m sure I will be in the next few days, but I’ll get over it,” he said.

“I was leading this golf tournament with nine holes to play, and I just found out… It’s a Sunday in a major tournament, what he can do.

“This is my first experience in this field and I hope that the next time I’m in this position I can handle it a little better. I didn’t handle it particularly well today, obviously, but it was a character-building day…I’ll come out stronger for it.

Once again, McIlroy would be right.

Just eight weeks later, in June, McIlroy scored an eight-shot victory at the US Open. Records tumbled in his wake at Congress, as he set a tournament record under 16, 268, becoming the youngest major winner since Tiger Woods at the Masters in 1997.

McIlroy celebrated a historic US Open triumph just two months after his Masters nightmare.

This historic victory marked the beginning of a golden era for McIlroy. After posting another eight-shot victory at the PGA Championship in 2012, McIlroy became only the third golfer since 1934 to win three majors at the age of 25 with a triumph at the 2014 Open Championship.

Before the end of the year, he would add his fourth major title with another victory at the PGA Championship.

And a lot of that was due to that fateful afternoon in Augusta. In a 2015 interview with the BBC, McIlroy called it the “most important day” of his career.

“If I hadn’t had this whole debacle, if I had just made a few bogeys down the stretch and lost by one, I wouldn’t have learned as much.

“Luckily it didn’t take me long to find myself in a position like that while leading a major tournament and I was able to cross the finish line quite comfortably. It was a huge learning curve for me and I needed it, and luckily I was able to move on to bigger and better things.

“Looking at what happened in 2011, it doesn’t seem so bad when you have four majors on your mantle.”

A two-stroke victory at Royal Liverpool helped McIlroy win the Open Championship in 2014.

McIlroy’s satisfaction came with a caveat: It would be “unthinkable” if he didn’t win the Masters during his career.

Yet as he prepares for his 15th appearance at Augusta National this week, a green jacket remains an elusive missing item from his wardrobe.

Despite seven top-10 finishes in his last 10 Masters appearances, the trophy remains the only thing stopping McIlroy from joining the ranks of golf immortals having completed the career grand slam of all four majors of the modern era: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

The Masters is the only major title to elude McIlroy.

A second-place finish behind Scottie Scheffler last year marked McIlroy’s best finish at Augusta, but 2011 remains arguably the closest he’s ever been to victory. A slow start to 2022 meant McIlroy began Sunday’s deciding round 10 shots behind the American, who teeed off on his final hole with a five-shot lead despite McIlroy’s brilliant 64.

At 33, time is still on his side. Although 2022 extended his major drought to eight years, this is arguably his best golf since that golden 2014 season.

And as McIlroy knows better than anyone, things can change quickly at Augusta National.


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