Remembering The Masters meltdown
Where were you when Rory McIlroy cracked at Augusta? James Corrigan tracks down his friends and family to relive the horrors of last year's final round
Everyone loves a weepy, particularly when the climax is left open-ended, with the potential for the protagonist to find happiness. So it was for Rory McIlroy and his infamous Masters meltdown of 2011. This was the Sunday when the boy wonder crashed to earth and the world and its wife took him into their arms and hearts. Golf can be cruel; of that there is no doubt. But this time the game surely went too far. This was sporting death by torture.
McIlroy, four ahead at the start of the final round, shot an 80 and finished tied for eighth. It is already deep within Augusta folklore that on the 10th he drove it all the way down the side of a white cabin which had previously considered itself blessedly isolated in the Georgia countryside. Then the lenses of Planet Earth zoomed in. A hack out, another hook and a duffed chip later and the result was a dream-wrecking treble-bogey seven.
Except the nightmare had only just begun. McIlroy found a creek, four-putted and then buried his head in his gloves. Merciless. It was like watching Bambi being shot – and then bled dry on a hook. A duck hook, even. The poor love. How would he ever get over it?
By winning the next major by eight shots, that's how. But we weren't to know that at the time. Not even McIlroy was to know it, as signified by the phone call he had with his mother, Rosie, the next morning. "It'll be OK," she assured her son. "No, it won't," he replied. "It will never be OK." You see, mothers do know best.
McIlroy might even have thought of that conversation when he returned to Augusta this week for the first time since his crying shame. With his caddie, J P Fitzgerald, and his father, Gerry, he visited ostensibly to jog his memory about the course's nuances. But there was also plenty to forget. He planned to visit the Butler Cabin and see where the ball had ricocheted off pine to find its fateful spot. "I hope Rory plays as many practice shots as he can off that 10th tee as there will be a lot of focus on him in that first round on Thursday," said Colin Montgomerie.
In truth, McIlroy never has been the type to dwell. The demons were largely expunged at Congressional two months later and the ones which remained will struggle to raise so much as a single butterfly in his stomach. As they looked on that night, there was a common bond between those who knew him; and that was the certainty that he would bounce back. McIlroy had always been a quick learner and would not discount a lesson.
So what did he take from that four hours delivered by the plus-foured Beelzebub? Well, for the first time his caddie has revealed how they held their own inquiry in the Augusta car park a few hours later and how he urged his employer to "seek out" Dave Stockton, the putting guru. Back at his Holywood home, Gerry was making a promise to himself to accompany his son to the forthcoming majors. And as Stuart Cage, his closest handler at ISM, agonised over the irony of McIlroy's management company overseeing the eventual champion, Charl Schwartzel, this remarkable young man put his own rebuilding plan into operation.
"It was a defining moment. That could have been the crossroads in my career," said McIlroy. "I could have let it get to me and gone into a slump. But I had enough good people around me not to let that happen. I was able to go down the right path and do the right things to put everything right and win the next major."
So he will travel down Magnolia Lane again on Tuesday, a year older and 80 shots wiser. He will need to because as he recognises, his challenge will be even tougher this time around. "Last year I flew in under the radar, but now I'll be going there with a lot more scrutiny because of what happened last year," he said. "The spotlight will be on me, and it's something I'll have to deal with. I'll just try to approach it like I did last year. For at least three days, anyway."
Stephen Crooks, head pro at Holywood Golf Club
"There were 110 of us at the club. There was only one telly so we were all crammed around it. By the time Rory started his final round, the atmosphere was great, buzzing. We were going to have one big party.
"There were TV cameramen there to film it and journalists, too. But then Rory bogeyed the first, Charl made his headway and the room went a bit flat.
"When it all was going wrong on the 10th I remember looking round the room and seeing everyone with their heads in their hands. Nobody said a word. We all just wanted to put our arms around him.
"We stuck it out till the bitter end but none of us really enjoyed it, no matter how exciting that finish was. Then the next day the TV cameras returned and I told them Rory would bounce back.
"We've known him since he was a young boy and were sure he would return stronger and make us proud. Now, after a refurb, we have 11 televisions at the club. We could accommodate about 180. And I'm sure we will if Rory is contention next Sunday."
J P Fitzgerald, McIlroy's caddie
"It was clear our chemistry was wrong that day and I take my full share of the blame for that. We shot 80, so I am not going to feel happy about my part. We could go through what was wrong but I'd much prefer to dwell on the positives, and what came out of the whole experience.
"About an hour or two afterwards, Rory and I met in the car park and had a great chat about the day. There were no recriminations as we talked it through, and planned for the future.
"I suggested to Rory that he seek out America's former Ryder Cup captain Dave Stockton, who has become a great short-game coach, and Rory is on record as saying how much Dave has helped him with his putting. We finished up by giving each other a hug. All you can do is learn from such experiences and we've both shown that we've done so."
Stuart Cage, McIlroy's then handler at ISM.
Former European Tour professional
"You could tell he was more jumpy than the first three days. There was less chat and he was clearly nervous. He had his mates with him in the car going up to the club and there wasn't a lot of banter.
"With hindsight I wished I had grabbed his attention and helped him relax but he had been slightly nervous on Saturday and dealt with it well, so you have to make a decision. It was the wrong one, looking back, but it was a learning process for all of us.
"The hardest part for me was not being able to go on the practice range with him, as you could at any other tournament. When a player starts to hit golf balls they loosen up. You can have more interaction and a bit of fun but you can't do that at Augusta.
"Everyone goes on about the 10th but bad luck made his tee shot appear miles worse than it actually was. He hits the ball so far with his driver that he knew he could have gone through the fairway so he's tried to turn a three wood round the corner, caught a tree and it has shot off left.
"After his drive at the 13th I knew it was over and what was going through his head. I've been there. I've never played in the Masters but trying to win a tournament meant everything to me and when I messed up... well, I knew how Rory was feeling. It just hurts and, having spent so much time with him, it hurt for me like I was watching my own son. You just feel terrible.
"That night was difficult. We had Charl at the house as well as Rory and you're congratulating one while commiserating with the other. But Rory was just amazing with Charl and the way he handled the press. He showed a remarkable amount of maturity and it told me he was not going to be bitter and twisted about it. I think in his head he'd already moved on, and that's why he could go to the US Open and win it by a mile.
"The Masters this year? I'm not a gambler, but I'd put money on him. He's mentally over the scars from last year, thanks to the US Open. He's learnt to be a winner, and if he's four shots ahead this year no one will get near him."
Darren Clarke, McIlroy's former mentor and Open champion
"If I'm not playing in the Masters you can guarantee I'll be watching every shot. One way or another, it's one of those events I never miss and, after the way Rory played for the first three days, I was looking forward to watching the final round.
"I was at home, and it quickly became clear that it was not going to be a comfortable experience. As the afternoon wore on I started to get conflicting emotions, because Charl is a great friend as well.
"Of course, it was sad watching what happened to Rory over the back nine but I didn't go to bed feeling it was the end of the world for him. Remember, I've known him since he was 13 and I've seen him grow and learn from every setback.
"The type of personality he is, you always know he is going to bounce back and so while I was desperately sad for him, I took comfort in the fact I knew he'd come back much stronger for the experience.
"I must admit I didn't think it would be so quick as to win his very next major – but that's Rory McIlroy. He's the most gifted player of his time, the Tiger Woods of his generation."
Gerry McIlroy, father
"I watched it alone at home. My wife, Rosie, was staying at Rory's house looking after his two dogs. They were having a big night at Holywood Golf Club, but I decided not to go. I knew they were all going to be really hyper and that's not really me. Rosie and I spoke on the telephone a few times through the evening. I knew everything was not quite right on the first tee. It was his body language.
"It was difficult to watch the 10th, but I was never really concerned about Rory. He's always been good at taking away the positives from a situation. And that's all that was – a situation.
"What can I say? He had a bad break on the 10th and it all unravelled. No it wasn't any fun to witness – but that's just golf. I am quite laid-back, as is Rory, and I knew he'd take it well, as he showed when speaking to the media straight afterwards.
"I spoke to him later that night and then Rosie spoke to him the next morning. He was OK, but a bit down, maybe a bit embarrassed. It would have been good if I was there. And that's why I decided to go over with him for the week of the US Open."
Graeme McDowell, McIlroy's Ryder Cup partner and close friend
"I went with a pal to the Tap Room, a sports bar near my home in Lake Nona. I thought at least there was one upside in having missed the cut at the Masters and that was that I could enjoy watching the final day.
"I don't usually like watching golf, but with my close friend leading the Masters this seemed like a special day. I was worried for Rors. He's a different golfer now, but back then he was always prone to the 'lefts' if he was under pressure.
"I could sense something wasn't right on the first. He and JP [Fitzgerald] weren't communicating as they should have. And when he went left with his second shot on the first I thought, 'What are you doing? You know you don't hit it there.' It stayed on the green, but he three-putted.
"'I don't like this,' I told my pal. People don't understand how unlucky his break was on the 10th and, of course, then it went from bad to worse. It was awful to watch; I just wanted to turn off the TV. But I couldn't. I was in a pub! Of course, I felt for Rors and I sent him a text that night. I can't remember exactly what it said, something along the lines of, 'Don't worry, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger.'
"Typical Rory, he came back straight away. 'I'm fine,' he said. He's that sort of bloke. As he proved a few months later."
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