Let’s be clear here. Rory McIlory’s Sunday afternoon train wreck at Augusta National was nothing short of an epic collapse.
In the 75-year history of The Masters, only three other comparable meltdowns come to mind:
- Ed Snead squandering a five-stroke, 54-hole lead in 1979.
- Greg Norman’s collapse in 1996 when holding a six-stroke lead heading into the final round.
- Ken Venturi’s final round 80 in 1956 when he was, like McIlroy, holding a four-stroke lead after 54 holes.
But based on McIlroy’s recent interviews and the “expert” analysts who speak as if McIlroy’s career already contains eight majors and that he just needs to buy his time until those majors start falling into his lap, you’d think that his future success is a virtual certainty.
It’s clear that the kid, and yes, at 21 years old, he is still just a kid, has an abundance of talent that simply cannot be ignored. However, McIlory’s first major championship win may not be as easy or come as quickly as many seem to believe.
There are some players such as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus that were born with the ability to close out golf tournaments. Woods won The Masters by 12 strokes at the age of 21, and Nicklaus defeated Arnold Palmer in an 18-hole playoff at the 1962 U.S. Open during his rookie season.
McIlroy is not a natural born closer, but that does not necessarily mean he cannot evolve into a great closer.
Players such as Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson went through the school of hard knocks before learning how to close out major championships.
But let’s also not fool ourselves into thinking that it’s a foregone conclusion that McIlory will quickly get over the hump and win his first major.
It makes no difference whether McIlory is 21 or 31; he is now carrying mental scarring from multiple major championship meltdowns. And whether you’re Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, overcoming that mental scarring to win one of golf’s four biggest events is no easy task…just ask Sergio Garcia, another can’t-miss prodigy who is still searching for his first major.
At the 2010 Open Championship, McIlroy opened with a record-tying round of 63 (no one has ever shot lower than a 63 at a major championship), only to follow it up with an 80 in Round 2.
At the 2011 Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy held the 36-hole lead in a field that contained the likes of Woods, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood before opening the third round with three consecutive bogeys and squandering his lead in a matter of 45 minutes. McIlory would ultimately post scores of 75-74 on the weekend and tie for 10th.
Even McIlory’s first professional win at the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic was shaky to say the least. McIlory bogeyed 15, 16 and 17 before having to sink a five-foot par putt on the 18th (a par-five) to hold off Justin Rose by a single stroke.
McIlroy’s only convincing win came at the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship where he shot a course record 62, which included a 30 on Quail Hollow’s treacherous back-nine, to come from well behind and defeat Mickelson by four strokes.
However, McIlroy’s win at Quail Hollow was not a pressure-packed, cotton-mouth type victory. McIlroy made the cut on the number and began the final round four strokes off the lead. It was a situation where no one really expected him to win. A good back-nine run without a victory would have been just that, a good back-nine run, which is far less devastating than being painted with the meltdown brush.
McIlroy seems to have a good head on his shoulders. And at the young age of 21, he has already played in 10 major championships, not to mention the invaluable experience he has gained from being in contention.
But make no mistake; next time McIlroy his holding the lead at a major as he makes the turn for the back-nine on Sunday, Augusta, St. Andrews and Dubai will undoubtedly creep into his mind. These are demons that cannot be fully eliminated, no matter how much money one throws at a team of high-priced sports psychologists.
McIlory’s biggest challenge in the coming weeks, months and years will not come from his putter, his short game or even his competition. His biggest challenge will be his ability to contain these demons next time he finds himself with a lead on Sunday afternoon at a major championship.
Golf is a game of patience, and as much as we are desperate for golf’s next big star to emerge, it may take McIlory quite some time to overcome his Augusta National demons and win his first major.
In short, the kid needs to learn how to close, and until he does, I, for one, am not going to speak as if multiple majors are simply low-hanging fruit that McIlroy will begin picking off in the coming years.
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