Don't worry mate, it happens to the best of us." So Rory McIlroy texted Graeme McDowell on Sunday night after his countryman's 79 in the final round of the Players Championship. If there was any doubt McIlroy had put his own Masters meltdown in its place then surely here was the verification. "How many times do I think about what happened at Augusta?" said the 22-year-old here yesterday. "I'd say every interview and every press conference I do. I mean, it's in the past. I'm very happy where my golf is at the moment and looking forward to the stretch coming up, starting here."
Indeed, this Volvo World Match Play Championship is the beginning of a run which sees him play five of the next six weeks. He confirmed this as the reason for his absence from Sawgrass, an explanation certain Americans still refuse to accept. But then, since that infamous 80 in the season's opening major, McIlroy has become an even hotter property. The image of that broken young man, crushed by forsaking a four-shot lead, is too irresistible to ignore.
Except McIlroy is not crushed or shattered or, in his eyes, irreparably hurt. He does not believe he has scars to heal as he does not believe the scars run deep. He took the advice of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager who sent a message in the aftermath of Augusta, and ensured he returned home to be surrounded by his family and friends. Now he has emerged from the haze, McDowell's own capitulation has clearly only strengthened his conviction.
"I spent a bit of time with Graeme and just talked through it," said McIlroy. "It can happen to anyone. He's a major champion, but it's tough to finish off tournaments no matter who are you – Tiger made it look so easy for 15 years. Our situations were very similar. G-Mac hits the tee-shot right on the sixth; Augusta I hit a tee-shot on the 10th left. It just plants that little seed of doubt in your mind. And from there, it's just so hard to get yourself back on track That is basically it."
If that sounds as if McIlroy has shrugged it off, never to be referred to again, he has not. He accepts there are lessons to be learnt, improvements to be made. As far as the technique goes, he spent last week in the company of his long-time coach Michael Bannon working "on a little thing in my swing" which was causing him to "start the ball a little right of the target and putting a little too much draw spin on it". He has also consulted the putting guru, Dave Stockton Jnr. The plan is "to get my game in the best possible shape, make it last through the majors until the end of August and then maybe start working on a few things after that."
On the mental side, he does not plan to revisit Bob Rotella, the celebrated mind doctor, any time soon, but admits that if he finds himself in a similar position at next month's US Open at Congressional the psyche will be radically different. "I went out at the last day at Augusta just trying to keep the lead, instead of saying to myself, 'Right, I'm going to go out there, shoot 65, beat everyone by eight and show everyone how good I am,'" he said. "Just like Tiger used to."
Certainly, it should make for intriguing viewing the next time McIlroy is in contention. For now, however, there are back-to-back events on his return to Europe – here and in Wentworth next week – where he will chase an overdue victory. The world No 6's return of just two wins from nearly four years as a professional is baffling in the extreme, although perhaps does help to explain why the pressure bit so badly in Georgia. To win big, he may first have to win smaller, and although a tournament featuring five of the world's top six and boasting a first prize of £700,000 should never be linked with the word "small", these are the steps he will likely have to take.
McIlroy is born for match play. It suits his game, suits his character. "I like this format," he said. "It gives you the opportunities to be a little more aggressive and take on shots you might not necessarily take on. It's just a nice break from the norm of playing stroke play week-in, week-out. It's good to go head-to-head with someone."
This morning that someone will be the South African Retief Goosen, a man of not many words and even fewer nerves. The edge will be apparent. "Yeah, it is different," agreed McIlroy. "In this format you're not as chatty as you would be together. I'm sure there's not much chat going in with the Goose in match play. Or in a stroke play. Or at dinner."
The laughter filled the press conference. Maybe he did gag under the pressure. But this boy can gag with the best of them.Reuse content