McIlroy meltdown 'isn't terminal. It's part of growing up'

Manager insists time and talent are on the 21-year-old Ulsterman's side after his disastrous final round.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Some may struggle to muster an overload of sympathy for a 21-year-old multi-millionaire flying in the upper classes to a golf tournament where he will receive a big fat appearance fee. But still, the heart must pump ice if it did not go out to Rory McIlroy as he embarked on his marathon trip to Malaysia yesterday. For there in the same carriage, resplendent in green, was Charl Schwartzel, the winner of the 75th Masters.

Talk about "look what you could have won", talk about "Georgia on his mind". It was a good job McIlroy had his childhood sweetheart, who also happens to be his best friend, sat next to him. Unbeknown to McIlroy, or indeed to anyone outside his management company, Holly Sweeney had secretly rushed over from Holywood, their Northern Ireland hometown, to surprise him on the 18th green at the conclusion of the season's opening major.

It was supposed to be a fantastic celebration, a joyous snapshot to go around the world. Instead, as it all spiralled into humiliation, Holly remained hidden from him in the clubhouse. Yet her presence was to prove even more important in ignominy than glory. When McIlroy trooped in after signing for his 80, the boy had a loved-one to hug, a familiar shoulder to cry on.

However cheesy that scenario may sound, nobody should begrudge him that consolation, or indeed, Holly's company for what could otherwise have been a very lonely week at the Malaysian Open. This was a very public capitulation, the greatest collapse in Augusta history, a Masters meltdown for the record books and blooper DVDs. In the minutes after his fall from final-round leader to tied for 15th, from a four-shot lead into a 10-shot deficit, McIlroy very courageously and very commendably faced the media.

"It will be pretty tough for me for the next few days, but I will get over it – I will be fine," he said. "It's all part of the learning curve. It will only make me stronger."

Not everyone was so pragmatic. Watching on, Greg Norman saw darker forces at work. It was the Australian who has long held the distinction as Augusta's biggest loser, after conceding a six-stroke advantage to Nick Faldo 15 years ago. "I knew exactly how Rory felt," said the 56-year-old. "What is it with golf destiny? Isn't it strange? It taps you on the back of your head and it either pushes you ahead or pushes you back. Who determines that? It's crazy."

Deep down, Norman knows that Norman was the determining factor. Not fate, not destiny. And it is imperative McIlroy understands this, too. In the next few days in Kuala Lumpur he will sit down with his manager, Chubby Chandler, and analyse exactly what went wrong. Their investigations shouldn't take too long. True, McIlroy suffered some rotten luck when his hook from the 10th tee hit a tree and took a devastating deflection into uncharted territory between two cabins. But it was the manner in which he responded to the triple-bogey seven which should be of utmost concern.

McIlroy was still only two off the lead, with two par-fives to come. But then seven putts from a combined length of no more than 25 feet on the next two greens turned what could have been a mere setback into a fully blown implosion. As he sidestepped around the cup on the 11th and 12th, like an ice hockey player moving a puck around a saucer, it was impossible not to worry how this could define his sporting future. When he is in that position again, the doubts will fill the tension, for both the audience and yes, McIlroy too. It's a deep-rooted problem, both mental and technical, and it is one he and his team must determine to fix immediately. Fortunately, his back-room is full of ex-pros with their eyes wide open.

"It isn't terminal," said Chandler. "It's just a part of growing up. He's just 21. Don't forget that. If he was in America he would still be at college. And we are all thinking that he should have won the Masters. He is No 9 in the world and we are all thinking he is underachieving. It's scary but that's how good he is."

There's plenty of sense in Chandler's argument, particularly as this was only McIlroy's 10th major – and that he had finished third in three before. There is no reason why he can't "bounce back", as Faldo yesterday assured he will. But Chandler will appreciate the hurdles ahead. In the short term, his young charge has the inevitable emotions to negotiate.

"I just hope that Rory has as many sympathetic voices in his ear as possible over the next few months," said Colin Montgomerie. "It's going to be a very difficult time for him and I hope he gets the support he requires for his career to move forward. This is a huge learning curve for Rory."

Montgomerie suffered his own golfing heartbreaks, most recently at the 2006 US Open when he double-bogeyed the 18th when needing a par to win that elusive major. "It took me a few months to get over it to be honest," said the Scot. "The other four or five majors I was runner-up in it was others doing well. But that was my fault and Rory must feel the same. But he was leading the Masters on the 63rd hole. He only lost the lead with eight holes to go. That has to be a positive at 21 years old."

The age is the thing. There was no way back for Montgomerie after Winged Foot. For McIlroy time is an ally to be consulted, not an enemy to be outpaced. Montgomerie went on to warn that majors are not a given, no matter how vast the talent. He cited the mysterious case of Sergio Garcia, the prodigious Spaniard who was the equivalent of McIlroy a decade ago. Now he's down at 72nd in the rankings, tormented by his majorless demons. Guess what first blew El Niño off course? Putting. Drive for show, putt for woe.

But there does seem something blessedly different about McIlroy, an imbedded maturity which will carry him onwards. As Chandler points out, he needs to win more. With just two titles he is effectively trying to go from crawling to running and there has to be a little walking at first. The example of Schwartzel is a useful gauge.

"Don't forget Charl has won eight times," said Chandler, who also manages the South African. "He's been a pro nine years. That's what he's got over Rory. A bit more experience. A bit more winning experience."

Where Schwartzel will go now will be intriguing. The son of a Johannesburg chicken farmer is up to 11th in the pecking order and has the game to continue the dramatic strut upwards. He is only 26 with a major trophy to match that of his compadre. He and Louis Oosthuizen, the Open champion, recently bought a house together in Florida, where they can warm-weather train. "It will be nice to hang the Green Jacket just above his Claret Jug," laughed Schwartzel.

McIlroy probably shouldn't visit for a while. He also shot an 80 when leading at St Andrews. The rebuilding of Rory genuinely will be a fascinating process. European golf and sentimentalists everywhere can only pray it will be deemed successful soon.

Who is Charl Schwartzel?

* The 26-year-old South African grew up on a chicken farm in Deneysville, a town outside Johannesburg, and turned professional in 2002 aged 18 – becoming the third youngest player to secure a European Tour card.

* Two years later he won his first European tour event, the Dunhill Championship, and claimed a further five titles before winning the biggest prize of his career on Sunday.

* Tied for 30th at Augusta last year and in 16 previous major tournaments had never finished in the top 10. He only placed in the first 25 on four occasions.

* His nervous father George is rarely able to watch his son, often taking tablets to try and sleep through his tournaments. But on Sunday he, wisely, stayed up all night.         Rajvir Rai