James Lawton: Young pretender learns the hard way what it takes to be a champion

McIlroy's meltdown contrasts sharply with Tiger's renewed desire to be the best

There may have been longer, more eviscerating days on a golf course but not, maybe, for someone so young who had only to think back to the morning to yearn for another life and another set of possibilities.

Then, it was just one more walk among the dogwood and the pine, one final statement that it would be on the red soil of Georgia where Rory McIlroy would announce his destiny as a US Masters champion of the ages.

It didn't sound so much before you knew that Tiger Woods also had something to say, something which landed with such force, such withering power, that it was as though 16 months of gathering despair simply hadn't happened – and when you considered the ground the 21-year-old Ulsterman had already covered in three days.

But even then you thought quite how much he still had to do, how far he had to play beyond the generation of talented Europeans whose presence had so dwindled since Jose Maria Olazabal won 12 years ago, and this was magnified a little more dramatically with each shaft of Tiger brilliance.

And then we saw quickly enough that it was too much; he had too much weight to carry, too much pressure and when his round became a nightmare, when he ballooned to a triple bogey on the 10th hole and then a double on the 12th it was all you could do not to turn away.

There was so much to lose for McIlroy when he travelled down Magnolia Drive yesterday morning, a champion-elect if we had ever seen one.

The triumph, which stretched over three days now, he had to protect was one of a blessed single-mindedness and spirit. Of course he has been a dazzling presence in the game for some years now, prodigious in his relish and his technical brilliance, but there is only one way to step beyond such high promise and natural facility. It is to cross the line that separates those who win majors and those who just talk about it.

Unfortunately on the day when McIlroy's eloquence had to be concentrated on each individual shot for the first time in four days he became tongue-tied. He stuttered to a first-hole bogey and within an hour his four-shot lead had evaporated.

The downturn was relentless and by the back nine it was not so easy to remember that so recently he had played as though the place was his home. There was additional pathos in the fact that the man who first threatened to sweep him away was Woods, the man he had threatened to emulate as a 21-year-old bedazzling golf with an iconic major win.

In 1997 Tiger led Constantino Rocca by nine shots when he came to play his fourth round. Woods grew invincible at that point of strength. McIlroy melted. His march was halted yesterday by the first evidence that amid the precocious brilliance much frailty still lurked – and the astonishing pace of the Tiger's recovery, a blitzkrieg of a 31 on the front nine and then a move into Amen Corner which revived memories of all the old command.

For a few holes McIlroy refused to buckle. Rather he would attempt to scramble to the finish line, an ambition which suddenly seemed less fanciful when Woods, quite unaccountably, three-putted on the the 12th. However, there were other more seasoned golfers ready to put McIlroy back into the margins of major-league golf where he will have to work to mend a broken spirit.

For a little while the Tiger had seemed unbeatable again; he had a momentum against which McIlroy must surely founder. But this, of course, is a complicated story, about the promise of youth and the difficult job some men face when the best of it is gone.

For Woods now every stride seemed to be between heaven and hell, and when he lapsed again on the 13th, losing the chance to drive home his challenge, there was a sense that another moment of resurrection had perhaps come and gone. As it happened, the Tiger had one last brilliant shot – a stupendous second at the par-five 15, which set up an easy eagle, the lead and a momentum which might just have ended the days of pain and desperate reappraisal.

The Tiger however had merely given the strongest suggestion yet that he would indeed return to the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's unique mark of 18 major titles. He had made a point of great optimism but confirmation would not be quite delivered this day. He had come a long, long way but not quite far enough.

Did it mean that McIlroy again faced only a short journey to a crowning moment in the sun? He could never think that again, not in Augusta at least.

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