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McIlroy seeks redemption at Quail Hollow

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was certainly an interesting assortment of players and caddies, and even an agent, that lined up on the pitch Monday in Charlotte, united to take on a local men's team in soccer.

Spain's Sergio Garcia, Germany's Martin Kaymer, Australia's Nathan Green and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy suited up for the visiting contingent and were promptly drilled by the American unit 7-4.

"We got it back to 4-all halfway through the second half," McIlroy said, "and then they turned it on at the end to beat us."

For those who like their plots played out on parallel lines, all eyes will be on McIlroy this week at Quail Hollow, where he hopes getting turned away at the end doesn't become a habit.

McIlroy, who turned 22 Wednesday, is making his first start in the States since blowing up in the final round of the Masters, which in soccer terms was tantamount to a hellacious kick in the shins.

In the month that has passed, the popular Ulsterman has received more unsolicited input, advice and conciliatory counsel than any player in the game, including from a guy who has traveled down the same careening road far too many times to mention.

Rory McIlroy -- back in the States since his Masters meltdown -- won his first PGA Tour championship in Charlotte last season. (Getty Images)  
Rory McIlroy -- back in the States since his Masters meltdown -- won his first PGA Tour championship in Charlotte last season. (Getty Images)  
A couple of days after McIlroy melted down with an 80 in the final group at Augusta, he ran into Greg Norman at a European Tour event in Malaysia. If there's one guy who can speak from experience about Sunday slaps, brutal beatdowns and Hindenberg-style blowups, it's Norman, who once wasted a seven-shot lead in the final round at Augusta National.

The gazillion text messages, emails and pats on the head were nice, but this was the voice of experience talking -- and the Irishman became SpongeBob, soaking it all in. As a means of finding the road to recovery, Norman laid out a reverse to-do list of sorts.

"Don't read golf magazines, don't pick up papers, don't watch the Golf Channel," McIlroy said. "But it's hard not to. Obviously you want to keep up to date with what's going on, but you can't let other people sort of influence what you're thinking and what you should do.

"I've taken my own views from what happened a few weeks ago and moved on, and that's the most important thing."

Which, of course, begs the logical query from around every water cooler on the planet the day after McIlroy came unspooled at Augusta: What, exactly, did happen?

"I don’t think I was ready," McIlroy said.

To some degree, the global shock that set in as television cameras followed the mess he made on the 10th hole was because most of us thought he not only was ready, but willing and able. In the States, much of that sentiment was a result of the closing 62 he shot at Quail Hollow last year to win his first PGA Tour title.

In other words, McIlroy moves from the site of his worst career setback to the site of his biggest U.S. achievement, in consecutive PGA Tour starts, which certainly has helped salve his wounded confidence. He was only 20 when he won in Charlotte last year, and his 10-under final round was a crowning moment in the so-called Queen City.

"That was the best performance of my career so far," he said.

He's had huge chances to change that admission at the past two majors.

After he held a share of the lead with four holes to play at the PGA Championship last fall, nobody envisioned that McIlroy would be pushing up daisies at the former nursery called Augusta National. He hit shots on the 10th hole into locales nobody knew existed, including a tee ball that caromed off a tree into the guest cabins situated down the left side.

As TV cameras tried to track his whereabouts, McIlroy was seen tucking in his shirt, giving the appearance that he might have ducked into a cabin for a bathroom break. In reality, all he was offloading was any slim chance he had left to win.

Even though it all imploded in highly public fashion, McIlroy was his customary classy self afterward, which probably engendered more goodwill among his fans than a victory might have.

"It's only golf at the end of the day," he said. "No one died."

Well, other than some of the mojo he had generated. McIlroy, No. 6 in the world, passed Tiger Woods in the rankings this week, but is roundly considered an heir to the top slot. Delivering at the Masters would have put him on the edge of the No. 1 position.

Instead, it underscored the shortcomings in his short game that need shoring up. Say that three times fast. McIlroy probably has.

"I displayed a few weaknesses in my game that I need to work on," he said. "But I think you've got to take the positives. For 63 holes, I led the golf tournament, and it was just a bad back nine, which a very bad back nine that sort of took the tournament away from me, I suppose. But what can you do? There's three more majors this year and hopefully dozens more that I'll play in my career."

McIlroy is a chipper kid most of the time, so his decidedly upbeat reaction isn’t particularly surprising. Resilience of youth and all that.

"What else was I going to do?" he said. "I can't come off and sulk and say, 'Oh, this is the worst day of my life,' because a bad day on the golf course is better than a good day in the office."

One of the most widely circulated clichés in the game is that players learn something from every defeat. Not always the case. Some players make the same mistakes repeatedly to the point you can almost time the impending train wreck with a countdown. But McIlroy sensed that he played the final round at Augusta defensively, and that it backfired.

Continuing with the soccer/football analogies here, it's possible to institute a nickel defense package in golf and to try to protect a lead, but not always advisable, especially when on the cusp of being a wire-to-wire Masters winner and you are clearly the dominant player that particular week.

"That was the one thing -- I don't think you can protect a lead, you've just got to go out and play and make birdies and let the guys catch you," he said.

They did that in a heartbeat. His four-shot overnight lead was gone by the time McIlroy finished his second hole as eventual winner Charl Schwartzel and a slew of others fast jumped into the mix. On the craziest Sunday in Masters history, McIlroy seemed like the only guy still on the course who didn’t have a chance to win.

"I just should have gone out and played my game, said, 'Right, if I play well today I'm capable of shooting 65 around this golf course and winning by 10,'" he said. "That's not the way it worked out, and that's experience.

"That's just learning to be in that position more often, and hopefully I'll be able to get myself in those positions more often in my career, and sooner or later it's going to happen where it finally clicks and I'm able to handle it, handle the whole thing a lot better and win."

As a polar opposite, interestingly, McIlroy was four behind when the final round started last year in Charlotte. Some guys are better at laying in the weeds in the final round, while others, like Woods, are notoriously vicious as frontrunners. With McIlroy, it's still too soon to tell which suits him best, though sleeping on the 54-hole lead at a major could make anybody need a change of bedsheets, regardless of age.

"The biggest advantage {I had] was that I didn't have to sleep over it," said Kaymer, who won the PGA last fall by coming from behind Sunday. "I didn’t have to listen to you guys on the Golf Channel about how big it would be and all the pressure that you will approach the next day.

"I didn't have to deal with that."

McIlroy's still dealing with it. But if his demeanor is any indication, he has already let it go, which is crucial, because stuff like this tends to fester. Norman probably didn’t mention that part.

"I'm fine," McIlroy said. "I mean, it was a great chance to win a golf tournament, but it's golf."

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