James Lawton: Merry McIlroy casts out Masters demons with a line from Boris


If Rory McIlroy brought a single demon back here to where, this time last year, some feared his career might have been destroyed before it truly began, all the evidence is that the little blighter did not make it through US Customs.

Another possibility is that, having seen the assurance with which a apparently broken then 21-year-old has returned to the scene of his torment, the coolness he is displaying before a duel with Tiger Woods that is being described with increasing frequency as the "only story in town", the demon has simply scampered off into the pine trees.

What was absolutely certain yesterday was that McIlroy looked about as vulnerable as some gnarled old champion who knows every inch of his game's trickiest terrain.

No, of course, he was quick to say, such a declaration would be somewhat premature despite the splendour of his redemption a few months later at the US Open, but the truth about himself he was willing to claim is that he may just be one of the quickest healers in the history of a game which so often distributes wounds that never go away.

The suggestion came in his sure handling of the huge pressure of expectation building around him here these last few days.

He borrowed one phrase from the teenaged Boris Becker who greeted the loss of his Wimbledon title with the philosophical aside that no one had died out there on the Centre Court, but the rest was mostly the musing of a young man of considerable self-awareness and humour.

"I think as golfers we understand that we lose more than we win. We only win a number of times and every other time we are not lifting the trophy. It's not a failure but you don't win, so maybe you have to get used to living with some disappointment.

"Maybe I've just got the mindset that I handle it a little better than others and looking back to last year I think maybe the vital thing was that I understood through all the disappointment that I had many more chances to win a major or a Masters. It's only golf, you know."

So, is the 76th Masters a two-horse race? "You have to remember," he says, "that there are 80-plus players in this field. It's not just about two or three guys or whatever. Every guy has just to think about themselves and try to play the golf course as best they can. You just have to concentrate on yourself.

"It's nice to be getting all this praise and everything but you have to take it with a pinch of salt. I'm nowhere near the achievements of Tiger or the level of success he has had over the last 15 years. Hopefully, I'll get somewhere close to that."

If that might be a version of golfing heaven, it is one which McIlroy insists can wait. There is, he says, an obligation also to enjoy the experience of the journey. Augusta National threatened to be the killing ground of his best hopes, but he knows now that it will always be the place where he learnt some of his most significant lessons, both as a golfer and a man.

"I know I'm stronger now as both a player and a person and that has come to me very strongly this last week or so. Definitely a lot of things have changed in me over the last year. I'm the same person, I know, but the difference is my attitude. This is stronger. I came here last year hoping to do well – this time I come with a much stronger feeling about wanting to win."

Naturally, because of the time and the place, McIlroy is grilled over that time between the nightmare of the back nine at Augusta last year and the brilliant new dawn that came to him a few months later at the Congressional Club.

He related a call he took from Greg Norman soon after that long Sunday afternoon. "It was great that he took the trouble to do it," says McIlroy. "It was great coming from him because he had been in the same position in 1996 and before then 1986, sorry 1987 – I wasn't born then. He knew how I felt better than anyone else and he said a couple of things that I found very useful."