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Young age leads to nothing but a big number for McIlroy

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One day you're marveling that Rory McIlroy is only 21.

The next day you, and he, are cruelly reminded: He's only 21.

As McIlroy slid from the doorstep of a major championship right off the leaderboard and into the creeks and underbrush that once claimed Greg Norman, he looked at times like a disheveled high school freshman, shirttail out and stranded without a ride.

He led this Masters by four strokes when he came to Augusta National early Sunday afternoon, his mind preoccupied by a televised rugby match between Ulster and Northhampton. It was 12:15 p.m. and his manager, Chubby Chandler, smiled. "He definitely hasn't showered yet," Chandler said.

He had made three bogeys in three days, no double bogeys, no three-putts, no signal that he would be a victim to that Sunday bacillus that has infected the old, young and middle-aged as the sun goes low in the Georgia evening.

Then he went out and shot 80, worst round in the field Sunday. And that's with pars in the final three holes. On a day when only 11 players shot 74 or higher.

And it was a grotesque 80. It included a four-putt on the 12th green, although by then the rest of the field had broken away like a peloton, with Charl Schwartzel eventually becoming the first man to birdie the final four holes and win a Masters, at 14-under-par.

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McIlroy's approach shot on the first hole found an awkward spot and doomed him to bogey. He barely salvaged par on the amiable par-5 second hole. He missed a short par putt on the fifth. He missed a short birdie putt on the third. He did birdie the seventh and got to the turn at 11-under-par for the tournament, and in first, although Tiger Woods was leading the pursuing traffic jam.

"I really felt like I had a chance then, even though I'd had trouble on the greens," McIlroy said.

The chance disappeared on the 10th hole, the same one that seemed to bring Norman underwater all those times.

It is difficult to describe how horrid McIlroy's tee shot was on the 10th. It clipped a tree and wound up in the area of two white cabins. On the tee he asked if he were out of bounds, which he wasn't, but there are no green jackets in that vicinity.

"I'm pretty sure nobody has been over in those cabins before," he said when it was over, finding it funny himself.

"I just got my swing going a little quick and hit it too far left. And then I tried to get a little too cute."

McIlroy pitched out in the fairway and then steered his third shot left of the green near more trees. When he bounced his next shot off another tree -- yes, bark is worse than bite at Augusta National -- he was sentenced to a triple-bogey eight, and now he was two strokes back.

Another botched short putt at 11 and his four-putt on 12, in which he temporarily lost his attention span, pretty much did it. On the 13th tee he whacked his drive dead left and into a stream that branches off Rae's Creek.

At that point he leaned on the shaft of his driver, shook his head, and looked up morosely, and you wanted to summon a taxi.

But you can't tap out, and you can't call for the trainer, and McIlroy had five and a half holes to go.

When he got to 18, Schwartzel had already won. A large crowd still waited, as others went home or headed to the practice green for the champion's ceremony.

McIlroy came out of the scorer's hut and talked comfortably, until a Masters official curtailed the interview. McIlroy then walked toward the clubhouse, where a gathering of members and guests on the balcony was waiting for him and applauded and cheered as if McIlroy had done what everyone assumed he would.

The Masters is like that. Evisceration with a smile. After all, they want you to go through this next year.

McIlroy got to the locker room and fished out a putter and a wedge, carrying his shoes with his other hand. He was composed, but bewildered.

He didn't know why he didn't have his touch on the greens anymore. "But you can't be second-guessing yourself on these greens, especially with the speed," he said.

A sickly putter cannot be quarantined from the other clubs in the bag. McIlroy missed seven greens Sunday. He had missed 11 in the three previous rounds.

But if you want to talk about being 21 years old, McIlroy will go along.

"It's really inexperience," he said. "It's Sunday at a major. It's the first time I've been in this position. It isn't the first time a round like this has happened to me. It won't be the last. It's going to take a few weeks to get over this but I think I'll learn something from it. I'll have a lot more chances. Maybe it will be a character-building experience."

Just a few hours earlier it had been so different.

Chandler talked of the need to establish "life after Tiger" in golf, and was already talking about Saturday being the "key round" of McIlroy's victory. A rugby friend had texted McIlroy, who has been faithfully building himself in the gym, and told him, "You're actually looking athletic out there. And I think you've even got a little gun [bicep]."

But Eugene Fayne, the president of the Irish Golf Union, sat nearby and heard Irish writers talk of McIlroy "finishing the circle" of an Irish slam, with former PGA and British Open champ Padraig Harrington and current U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell.

"Let's not be printing the T-shirts just yet," Fayne said.

McIlroy will now go to Atlanta at 5 p.m., according to plan, and fly to London and then Kuala Lumpur for another tournament Thursday.

If nothing else this was a vivid poster for the global nature of golf, with players from five continents slugging it out. Incredibly, four Europeans finished ahead of McIlroy.

Asked, in that unsuspecting morning, what those flights would be like, Chandler smiled and said, "The first one will have a lot of drinking and the second will have a lot of sleeping."

The sleeping part might come hard for Rory McIlroy, but you saw his calm eyes afterward and you wondered just how many sorrows he really had to drown.

After all, he's just 21.

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