|The scoreboard tells the tale of McIlroy's 2011 fourth-round implosion beginning on No. 10. (Getty Images)|
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The cheers weren't just echoing through the pines like seldom before at Augusta National, they were practically ricocheting.
First, Charl Schwartzel holed a wedge shot for an eagle, then Tiger Woods made an energizing eagle putt, and far too many players to mention were amassing birdies so often, crowd eruptions in the opening hours of the final round of the Masters last year sounded like ordnance exploding.
Then there was the chatter and splatter enveloping 54-hole leader Rory McIlroy, who was being bathed in outright empathy at levels not heard since Greg Norman bungled away a six-shot lead to lose in 1996.
Often at Augusta, when a contender falls off the board, they're surrounded by the sound of chirping cicadas, but not the animated McIlroy, 21 and trying for a wire-to-wire victory. After starting the back nine with a one-stroke lead and imploding on the 10th and 13th holes, the sympathy symphony for the Ulsterman was altogether different.
The timbre in the timber, where McIlroy was hitting his ball, changed entirely. As players tracked progress by the birdie cheers on the front nine, McIlroy's regress was defined by its own wall of sound. The front-nine cheers were replaced by a Sunday mourning like no other.
"You had the reverse on the back nine," Geoff Ogilvy said, "when we had the Rory groans."
Ultimately, Schwartzel got the green jacket, while McIlroy skidded to T15 with an 8-over 80.
His next aural report, McIlroy nothing but aced it.
In one of the most amazing major-championship reclamations in years, two months after the unmitigated Masters disaster, McIlroy not only won the U.S. Open by eight shots, he broke the tournament scoring record by four strokes. This time, he led after all four rounds and never wobbled.
"Yeah, it was definitely a defining moment," McIlroy said of his celebrated Masters crash. "It could have been the crossroads of my career."
In retrospect, it was probably both. Between majors, McIlroy not only repaired his psyche, solidified his putting stroke, grasped he was trying to play against character and did the most important thing of all: He stood back and had a good laugh at his own expense.
"I could have did what I did at Augusta and let it affect me, let it get to me, and maybe go into a slump or feel down or feel sorry for myself," he said. "But I had enough good people around me not to let that happen."
Buoyed, badgered and kept honest by his family and friends, McIlroy never had time to feel sorry for himself. For those who recall the sideways drive he hit on the 10th hole at the Masters, which ended up on part of the golf course that few had ever visited, one of his pals took a picture of his television set and emailed the photo to McIlroy's cell phone.
When he opened the attached shot, there was McIlroy, standing among the Augusta National cabins, looking downright panicky and perplexed. McIlroy's pal didn't bother waiting to see how things turned out -- he emailed the photo while Rory was still playing the back nine.
"They are brutal, but I give them the same stuff, so it's fine," McIlroy laughed last month. "But that's fine, that's what you need after something like that. You need someone to have a little bit of a sense of humor about it and make you laugh."
The resiliency of youth was never more apparent. After turning 22 and getting a putting tuneup, McIlroy used the Masters meltdown as an inarguable springboard, and 11 months after his closing 80 had sympathy cards rolling in from every corner of the globe, he was receiving congratulatory messages from the same folks when he won the Honda Classic to briefly become world No. 1.
A week after the Masters, after playing an event in Asia, McIlroy bravely parked in front of his television and watched the final-round replay. He had started the day in command with a four-shot lead, but Schwartzel caught him after three holes. Still, at the turn, McIlroy had reclaimed a one-stroke lead. In other words, at the 2011 season's first two majors, McIlroy held at least a share of the lead after 7½ of eight rounds.
McIlroy was determined not to make the same mistakes again.
"I just wanted to watch my whole demeanor, body language, and that was something that helped going into the U.S. Open," he said. "Looking at my shoes and looking at the ground all the time instead of, even if you're not feeling that confident portraying someone who is confident, chest out, head up, eyes [ahead] -- especially that last round of the U.S. Open, I tried to keep my eyes above the crowd level.
"That's something I really focused on. Even just having a good body language, it subconsciously gives you that little bit of confidence."
All our eyes are pointed dead ahead now, aren't they? At Congressional Country Club, he radiated potential greatness, becoming the fourth player to record four rounds in the 60s at the National Open. By comparison, the Masters suddenly felt akin to watching a youngster wobble around the first time the training wheels were taken off his bike.
"I thought the way he handled the meltdown last year at the Masters was spectacular," two-time Open winner Andy North said. "He stood there and took it like a man, and I think that's very important. Because he handled it so well, it helped him grow as a player immensely.
"We forget how young he is -- he's just a kid yet -- and he handled that exceptionally well, much better than we've seen some veteran players handle defeats like that. I think it really helped him once he got to the U.S. Open."
McIlroy has already seriously contended at three majors in the last two years, holding a share of the lead at the 2010 PGA Championship on the back nine before fading. For once, as the game continually scans the horizon for the next hero on a charging steed, McIlroy seems to fit the forecast.
He's not just the heir apparent, he's the heir obvious.
Heading into a Masters that has generated more advanced buzz than any in years -- Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and world No. 1 Luke Donald all have joined McIlroy in a PGA Tour winner's circle in the past two months -- looking past the Irishman would be a tremendous mistake.
Woods might top the betting line, but McIlroy has the same inherent strengths -- an ability to pound it off the tee and send high approach shots with long irons parachuting down onto the greens.
"His game is, absolutely, if you can picture a golf course and say, if Rory McIlroy designed a golf course, it would look a lot like Augusta National," countryman Graeme McDowell said as he loaded another jibe at his young friend. "It would have a lot of similar tee shots to 9 and 13 and 10 and stuff -- I won't say 10."
McDowell might be McIlroy's best friend on tour, so small wonder he has a healthy self-deprecation streak. As the Masters approached, inquisitors tried to delicately tap-dance around the back-nine bungle of last April, using polite euphemisms.
At one point, he interrupted a windy windup question, laughing: "I was struggling."
Not anymore, he isn't.
In his last 12 global starts offering world-ranking points, McIlroy has finished fifth or better in 11. That streak does not include an unofficial victory over an invitational field in Shanghai, either. By the way, he has finished ahead of Tiger Woods in all four of their common starts this season, too.
"He has beautiful technique, he has tons of confidence, his putting has improved dramatically over the last 18 months," North gushed. "I think he's the total package.
"I always thought that he was the next No. 1, whenever Tiger relinquished that reign."