Rory McIlroy: My Masters meltdown was such a crying shame

In the first of a series of interviews with the year's major players, Rory McIlroy tells James Corrigan about the horrors of Augusta, bouncing back to win the US Open and his 'soppy' love match with Wozniacki

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The Independent Online

Boys don't cry; but men admit they cried as boys.

Perhaps nothing validates the suspicion that 2011 was indeed the year when Rory McIlroy grew up more than his revelation that, yes, tears were shed in the wake of that Masters meltdown. Real, bitter, salty tears.

Of course, the scriptwriter would have insisted he had anyway – the scenario demanded it. Yet until now McIlroy has refused to divulge the extent of his misery in the hours during and the days following his very public humiliation.

"I didn't cry until I spoke to Mum and Dad on the phone the next morning," he said. "It all came out, there and then for the only time. I can't remember if it was something they said. 'It'll be OK,' my Dad told me. 'No, it won't be OK,' I said. 'It'll never be OK'."

Dad was right. They usually are. "It's one of those things," said McIlroy. "At the time you feel like that's the only chance you'll get and you've blown it. You have so many thoughts and emotions going through your head. Then, after a couple of weeks, you realise you're only 21 and it won't be your only chance. And you're ready to go again."

Redemption in golf, they say, is a process not a reaction and despite the haste with which he bounced back, McIlroy still had to go through the usual catharsis to release those demons. Even now, eight months on, he is asked to traipse through his agonies. That's the problem with this sporting-award season, in which McIlroy has already picked up a few Irish gongs and is one of the favourites for next week's BBC Sports Personality – the hero is sometimes asked to reflect on memories long since banished. So how did three days of heaven among the azalea suddenly turn into hell within the pines?

"It's funny, but the one shot I would like to take again from that Sunday is not the hook off the 10th tee [which led to McIlroy taking a treble-bogey seven] but the second shot to the first," he said. "That was the first point in the tournament where I made a very tentative swing; came up and out of the shot. I got away with it, made a par four, but that's when I knew. I just didn't feel the same as the previous three days."

The same realisation was to hit the gobsmacked viewers a few hours later. When McIlroy returns to Augusta in April he will walk across to see the cabin on the very edge of the property where his drive off the 10th ruined a quiet night in for the residents. "I'll just check it's still there and, hopefully, never see it again," he said. "You know I've not watched it all yet, but I've seen a few clips, of what happened on 10, and how I was slumped over the club at 13 . That was the moment on the course I felt like crying. Because even after what occurred at 10, I was still thinking 13, 15, 16... there are a lot of chances coming in. I was still optimistic. But when I hooked the ball into the creek, that was the one that took all that away."

The slog in from there was merciless in its protracted time span. The focus sympathetically tried to switch to the leaders, to Charl Schwartzel grasping glory with an outrageous quartet of birdies. But it was impossible for the producers not to switch back to that funereal procession. We now know that for McIlroy the grief had yet to peak. "I walked into the airport the next morning and saw Charl wearing the Green Jacket," he said. "It was hard not to think that should be mine, but then I thought about it and felt for Charl. I'd rather that Masters be remembered for his four successive birdies to finish rather than my collapse."

There is not the merest hope of that. The narrative of this human interest tale, one of the more gripping in the history of the ancient game, insists the "what came before" is central to the "what happened next". While the world, its critics and their wives jumped on the naive lad from Ulster who dared to try to leapfrog the vital stages of graduation, McIlroy went to work on the actual weaknesses.

"A big part of the motivation was trying to prove a lot of people wrong," he said. "And I had to prove something to myself – that I wasn't one of those players who crumbles under the pressure, who folds, who chokes. I hate using that word 'choke', but that's exactly what happened at the Masters. I wanted to show that wasn't the real Rory McIlroy. I had to be very honest with myself, look at my game long and hard and what I had to improve."

Everyone had an opinion on that score. It was mental, screamed that legion of armchair psychologists and very soon the most recognised sports shrink of them all, Dr Bob Rotella, was enlisted to do the fixing. That is, until Jack Nicklaus heard about it. "Jack sought me out when he read I was going to see Bob," said McIlroy. "He wasn't slagging off Bob, but trying to give me honest advice: how many tournaments did Bob win? Jack wanted to know about my mindset, why I hadn't won as many tournaments. Jack told me he concentrated on not making mistakes and regarded a three-putt as the most cardinal sin you could make."

Therein was the key. "Putting was the thing and that's why I went to see [the putting coach] Dave Stockton," said McIlroy. "I knew that if I'd putted well the first three days at Augusta I'd have been out of sight. I wanted to get into contention in a major as soon as possible – to see what I had learnt."

McIlroy had to wait a full two months, which included a promising performance at the Memorial and what he terms as "a life-changing trip" to earthquake-ravaged Haiti in his guise as a Unicef ambassador. And then, after three magical days at the US Open, he was out of sight. Everything felt different that particular Sunday morning.

"The big difference was having Dad there," said McIlroy. "I had breakfast with him, we talked it through. He said the right things: 'You played so well for three rounds, keep doing what you're doing.' It was the usual sports psychologist stuff, but it was important it was said by my Dad. It was more reassuring and I was able to concentrate on my own little bubble."

Contrast June with April, Maryland with Georgia. "It seemed I had so much time between getting up on the Sunday at the Masters and going out to play," he said. "Ulster were playing in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals [they lost], yet even after watching that I had so many hours to kill. I turned on ESPN, I was on TV, I turned on Golf Channel, I was on TV. All I could hear were people talking about me, on Twitter, everywhere. I learnt after that not to look at anything at all. Greg Norman told me that after the Masters; any little outside influence you let in to your bubble can be detrimental. You have to be self-disciplined to block it out."

The legend now shows McIlroy blocked it out and locked it out, prevailing with a record low number to win by eight shots. His fame went into the stratosphere, the orbit gobbled up his life. While his hometown of Holywood had been his sanctuary, now it transformed into his goldfish bowl. Security guards were hired to remove intruders from the grounds of his house, who just wanted to stare through his window. Meanwhile, the tabloids were digging for "old friends".

Soon a new friend appeared in grainy amateur images on the internet of a clinch outside a coffee shop. Enter Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 1 tennis player, and so the hype cranked up. Fast forward a butterfly's lifetime and every move he made was scrutinised. "Player leaves agent" took on critical importance while a mild case of dengue fever was labelled a "life-threatening disease". Welcome to Tiger's world.

"This is my life now," he said. "It's been a big change, but a great change. I wouldn't do anything differently. No, I can't do the same things I did a year ago and that's something I'm conscious of. I'm not sad about it. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices if you want to progress. So I see less Man United and Ulster games. It's not a big deal in the big scheme of things."

The truth is, McIlroy still feels small-time. He was stunned by the stir his move from International Sports Management to Horizon created, just as he was amazed by the furore caused by his Twitter row with the golf commentator Jay Townsend. "Why me? I don't know," he replied when asked if he ever wondered about his ability to grab a headline. "Is it who I go out with, what I do on the course, my afro haircut? I seriously don't know."

It's the full package and one which should be marked handle with care. In the curious world of A-list celebrity, McIlroy's honesty is both his charm and his potential downfall. "My only regret of the year is probably what I said to Jay Townsend on Twitter," said McIlroy as his mind flashed black to that tweet which called the American "a failed golfer" after he criticised his caddie, J P Fitzgerald. "I got a bit carried away there. I would still have had a go at him but would have phrased it differently. Yet, in the whole, I feel the decisions I've made this year have been good for me."

McIlroy has no doubt about what, or in this case "who", constitutes the highlight of 2011 outside the ropes. "I don't want to sound too soppy here, but meeting Caroline was the best thing to happen to me," he said. "Is that too cheesy?"

No more cheesy than watching these love-struck youngsters holding hands between holes in tournaments. Many would argue about how appropriate that might be in professional sport, but on so many levels their openness is refreshing. "I won't talk about the 'personal' stuff about our relationship but if someone asks me about her, I'm not going to shy away," said McIlroy. "I've always said, I will try to answer questions honestly and I don't want to change that about myself."

Isn't that so more easily said than done when the probes are visiting areas you would rather they wouldn't, where Tiger Woods felt them and then recoiled into his corner of corporate speak? "It is tough, the way the world is when you're so much in spotlight," he said. "It's hard to give open answers. But I'm going to try. It's my personality and I think people appreciate that about me."

How they go on appreciating McIlroy will be intriguing as the changes in his adult life become more and more apparent and as the motherly affection turns to a mature reckoning. In 2012, McIlroy will largely base himself in America and with the rumours circulating that he and Wozniacki are seeking a property in Dubai, Northern Ireland will undoubtedly see less of him than ever before. But like all sporting superstars, the judgement will lie on the field of play. And in Augusta there is the possibility of a verdict to make even the cold-hearted marketing department weak with pleasure.

"I'm not fussy about whichever major it is I could win, because my goal next year is to become a multiple major-winner," he said. "But I'd be lying if I said the Masters wasn't the one. I'll feel good going to Augusta, how I felt going into the US Open. There'll be something to prove, extra motivation, maybe even a little redemption to make amends for what happened. I'd love to give myself a chance to win again – what happened there last year won't happen again."

No choke and certainly no tears. Because this is the year when the boy grew up. "Definitely," said McIlroy. "From the disappointment at the Masters to the elation of coming back to win; from going to Haiti and appreciating what I have, to dealing with my personal life becoming public interest. The next time I cry about golf it will only be with joy. It's not worth crying over golf for any other reason. After all, it's only a game."

BBC Sports Personality: Rory's Choice

"Mark Cavendish should win BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He has won the two biggest events he could enter. Mark has had a phenomenal year, is the favourite by some way and rightly so. The best golfer of the three of us nominated is a tough decision for the voters. Darren [Clarke] and myself have won majors, while Luke has been No1 for six months and become the first player to win both money lists in the same year. I'm not expecting to win as the golf vote is going to be split and the Northern Ireland vote split. It's just nice to be nominated. I have never been there before."