THE MASTERS

Masters 2021: 10 years on from McIlroy’s implosion at Augusta National, can he now finally win the Masters?

By Dermot Gilleece

Though Rory McIlroy is unlikely to think of it in warm, commemorative terms, this happens to be the 10th anniversary of his back-nine collapse at Augusta National.  And for all the dire predictions in its wake, the immediate aftermath was a lot better than even the most optimistic of us could have imagined.

Though Rory McIlroy is unlikely to think of it in warm, commemorative terms, this happens to be the 10th anniversary of his back-nine collapse at Augusta National.  And for all the dire predictions in its wake, the immediate aftermath was a lot better than even the most optimistic of us could have imagined.

McIlroy is back for a 13 successive appearance in the Masters, having made his debut in 2009.  This sequence took on a particular relevance in 2015 when he moved into line to become only the sixth player to complete the modern Grand Slam of the four major titles.

We can but speculate as to how things might have panned out had be gone on to capture the coveted green jacket in 2011. In the event, it meant bitter tears with his mother, Rosie, who remarked with stunning simplicity: “Kids don’t always tell you their needs.”

Explaining his collapse with admirable directness with little time to compose himself, McIlroy told the media at Augusta: “I'm very disappointed. You know, I was leading this golf tournament with nine holes to go, and I just unravelled.

“Hit a bad tee shot on 10, and then never, never really recovered. You know, it's going to be hard to take for a few days, but I'll get over it. I'm fine. A couple of pretty good friends, Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney,  were in a similar position to me last year. I knew it was going to be very tough for me out there today, and it was. I felt good that I hung in well for the first nine holes, and then as I said, just sort of lost my speed on the greens, lost my line, lost everything for just two, three holes, 10, 11, 12, and couldn't really recover after that.”

As has been well documented, the collapse began with a triple-bogey seven on the treacherous 10th, where McIlroy ruinously hooked his drive deep into trees down the left.

On returning to these shores after the event, there was little comfort for him as a face in the crowd at the RDS, watching the Ulster rugby team in action against Leinster. Still, after an event which clearly rocked him to the core, there was generous support from such serious sporting luminaries as Alex Ferguson, Rafael Nadal and Greg Norman.

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Rory McIlroy. Photo by Golffile

And as the perfect therapy in such circumstances, the player wasn’t afraid to talk. For a start, he attributed no blame to his caddie, JP Fitzgerald. “I think JP does a great job,” he said. ‘A caddie is maybe five per cent of your game. I don’t see how another caddie, Billy Foster for example, would have done differently.”

The only person he believed could have helped him through the greatest trauma of his young life was his mother. “She would be a calming influence,” he said. “She’d have just said you’re OK; you’re fine.”

Ferguson, who was then manager of McIlroy’s beloved Manchester United, sent a text advising him to share his torment with those close to him.

“Obviously you are going to be disappointed and hurting,” texted the Scot, “but go and speak to the people you trust, family and friends, the people closest to you. Those are the people who will tell you the truth.”

Nadal told McIlroy: “You are so young. What you did for the first three days (at Augusta) was awesome. Your time will come, my friend.”

There were further comforting words in a phone call from Norman who famously relinquished a six-shot lead after 54 holes when losing the Masters to Nick Faldo in 1996. “I was 41 when it happened at Augusta,” said the Shark. “You’re 21. You’re good enough to get yourself in that position again. Just control what you can do and don’t get distracted by all the talk around you.”

Clearly, the player wasn’t afraid to confront the issue. Augusta’s 10th hole, the beginning of his back-nine torment, became the screensaver on his laptop. And within days of the event, he forced himself yet again to watch a DVD of the fateful homeward journey.

He even talked about the infamous c-word (choker), without actually using it. “I hate that word,” he said with feeling. ‘It’s just a terrible word. It’s not something you want to be associated with. It’s the worst thing you can be called in golf apart from cheat.

“I am not defiant or in denial. Everything is analysed. I’ve learned a lot in these last few weeks. I only found out since the Masters that it took Tom Watson five or six goes (to win his first major) and what’s he won, eight?  Great players have had their defeats.”

On that fateful Sunday in 2011, South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel improbably birdied the last four holes to capture the green jacket with a closing 66. Meanwhile, a wretched homeward journey culminated in a final round of 80 for McIlroy, who was pushed down into a share of 15th place.

My own instincts were that he was young enough to recover, though it might take a little time. I hardly imagined the sight I witnessed at Congressional two months later, when the Holywood star swept to a sensational, eight-stroke victory in the US Open. And the leading player in his wake was the formidable Australian, Jason Day.

So, what had he taken from that fateful experience down the most testing back-nine in golf? ìI think it's a Sunday at a major, what it can do,î McIlroy replied. “Hopefully the next time, I'll be able to handle it a little better. It was a character building day, put it that way. I'll come out stronger for it.”

And he did. A year later, he captured the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, again by eight strokes, and in 2014, he added triumphs in The Open Championship at Hoylake and another PGA at Valhalla. Yet the Masters remained a yawning gap in his CV.

Last November, he came up short for a sixth time in quest of the Grand Slam, with a fifth, top-10 finish, this time behind Dustin Johnson. The most telling statistic from this latest Masters challenge was an opening round of 75 which left him 10 strokes behind Johnson, his playing partner on the Thursday.  Even rounds of 66,67 and 69 meant that he was still nine strokes behind the American when the final scores were completed.

Tellingly, those latest Augusta figures meant that going back to 2015, McIlroy was 28 over par for the opening round of Majors, and a cumulative 64 under par in rounds two, three and four. As to which area of the game he felt he most needed to improve, he replied: “My iron play. It hasn’t been great since the lockdown. It sort of goes right through the bag, from wedges right through to the long irons.”  This was especially evident during the weekend of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he squandered a chance of victory.

Still, he added: “I love the prospect of another shot at the Masters, especially getting back to the course as we’re more accustomed to it.”

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Rory McIlroy. Photo by Golffile

Whatever their thoughts about the course, there is little doubt but that Tiger Woods will be a dominant figure in the minds of this year’s challengers.  It’s hard to imagine that it was as recently as February 21st when Woods, as host to the Genesis Invitational at Riviera CC, was asked by commentator Jim Nantz what he thought his prospects were of playing the Masters.

Though Woods was typically non-committal with his answer, you sensed he would be there for a 23rd time, come hell or high water. None of us could have imagined the circumstances which will cause his absence for a third time in the last six years, adding to non-appearances in 2016 and 2017 due to serious back problems.

We remember every detail of his remarkable triumph in 2019 and his return as defending champion last November. Even when tailed off behind Johnson, El Tigre left his mark by his reaction to a horrendous 10 at the short 12th, the worst score he had run up anywhere in his entire career.

His response was to card five birdies in the remaining six holes in his best-ever run over that stretch in 88 rounds in the Masters.  

Another player who has chosen other arenas to recover from similar torment on Augusta’s punishing 12th, is Jordan Spieth, who could be set to repeat his winning exploits of 2015, when he carded a winning aggregate of 270. Thoughts of Tiger should be sufficient to spark the flame in any challenger who is tempted to feel sorry for himself.

McIlroy famously found his way through the hoopla surrounding his collapse in 2011. An even greater challenge awaits, however, as he mounts this latest attempt at securing his Augusta destiny. And in the process, joining the most elite group in the history of the tournament game.

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