THE road to redemption began almost immediately for Rory McIlroy after his meltdown at last year’s Masters.
Instead of allowing his final-round collapse to haunt him, the Holywood man used it for motivation.
McIlroy confessed to shedding a tear in private as the enormity of blowing a four-shot lead and closing with an 80 hit him. But from the despair of his loss, he has risen to greater heights and erased any doubts about his mental toughness.
“Last year’s Masters was definitely a defining moment for me,” he told a news conference before the recent WGC-Cadillac Championship, his |final warm-up event for next week’s Masters.
“It could have been a crossroads in my career. I could have done what I did on Sunday at Augusta and let it affect me and let it get to me, and maybe go into a slump, or get down or feel sorry for myself.”
But McIlroy proved he was made of sterner stuff. Two months later he won the US Open at Congressional in a virtual canter, to claim his |first major. By any standard, it was an incredible performance. Just |22-years-old, he left his rivals for dead, finishing eight shots clear of runner-up Jason Day at 16-under-par, a record total for a tournament that dates back to 1895.
“I was able to go down the right path and put things right by winning the next major,” McIlroy said.
“All I wanted to do was put myself in that position again just to see if I could handle it better and I proved to myself that I could.”
Earlier this month, McIlroy ticked off another box, reaching the top of the world rankings when he won the Honda Classic in Florida, repelling a late charge from Tiger Woods.
England’s Luke Donald regained the number one spot a fortnight later when he won the Transitions Championship in a playoff. Unfazed, McIlroy instantly tweeted his Ryder Cup teammate: “Well I enjoyed it while it lasted! Congrats @LukeDonald! Impressive performance!”
At the Masters last year, McIlroy still led by a shot after nine holes but came unstuck when his wild tee shot at the 10th nestled between two of the cabins that line the course.
A week later, he posted a picture of himself in the woods on his Twitter page and joked that he was spotted house hunting. It is that irreverent humour and laidback manner that have made the mop-haired Ulsterman an instant hit with the galleries and sporting public.
During last year’s Masters, he spent one of his evenings playing football in the street. In his spare time, he watches and cheers on other athletes; Manchester United, Miami Heat and, of course, his Danish girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki.
On the same day he became number one, McIlroy boarded a plane in Miami and jetted to New York to watch Wozniacki in an exhibition match against Maria Sharapova at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
No shrinking violet, he suddenly found himself on the makeshift center court, trading shots with the Russian in an impromptu hit-out.
“Caroline turned to the crowd and said, is there any hot guys that want to dance with me. And I’m like, well, I don’t want anyone else dancing with you, so I put my hand up. Thank God she didn’t ask me to dance. I was much happier hitting a tennis shot,” he explained.
It is little surprise that heading back to Augusta National holds no fear for him either. There’s no anxiety, just excitement about prospect of driving back up Magnolia Lane.
“It will be very different this year,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily under the radar last year, but I’ll be going there with a lot more attention.
“Speaking about it makes me excited about going back there, and I can’t wait for it to start now.”