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.

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam