Shapiro: McIlroy lets it slip

Shapiro: McIlroy lets it slip
April 11, 2011, 1:33 am
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Sunday, April 10, 2011, 9:29 p.m.

By Leonard Shapiro
CSNwashington.com

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AUGUSTA, Ga. Not long after Rory McIlroy walked off the golf course Saturday evening with a four-shot, 54-hole in the 75th Masters, there was a message on his cell phone from his friend and Northern Ireland countryman Graeme McDowell, the defending U.S. Open champion, who actually walked in McIlroys gallery after missing the cut himself.

He just texted me and told me he loved me, McIlroy said with a beaming smile. I dont know what that means. I dont know if thats him or the beer talking. No, its great to see him out there and I appreciate his support.

Now more than ever, McIlroy will need more love and support from his friends and family than it takes to prop up the Key Bridge. In a meltdown roughly akin to Greg Normans fold against Nick Faldo here in 1996, McIlroy, so cool and confident in forging that lead, unraveled in front of the world Sunday, his game disintegrating one ugly swing after another.

A curly-haired 21-year-old with a baby face any mother would love, McIlroy has had tremendous local, vocal support all week as five and six-deep galleries watched him make his way around one of the most storied venues in the world without many outward signs of distress. Through his first 54 holes, he made only three bogeys and did not have a single three putt on Augusta Nations infamously treacherous putting surfaces.

But not on Sunday, bloody Sunday.

It began almost immediately with a bogey on his first hole, and with Tiger Woods evoking roar after roar with four birdies and an eagle on his front nine to get back into the mix, McIlroy was mostly treading water with a front-nine 37.

And then he drowned.

His dream of becoming the second youngest champion in Masters history ended at the tenth with a drive that banged into a tree, then kicked dead left where few other than 22-handicappers have ever had to hit a second shot. Then it just got worse. A chip into the fairway, a shot pulled left again in the bushes, another tree limb struck on his fourth, 25 feet from the hole in five and a two-putt triple bogey that took him out of the lead for the first time all week. Two holes later, he four-putted from 16 feet for a double bogey at the 155-yard 12th hole, the coup de grace for a player who many had expected to prevail and assume the mantle of the leader of his Generation Next buddies now making plenty of noise in events around the world .

McIlroy tried to look at the bright side afterward, saying I felt good that I hung in there for the first nine holes. Then I just sort of lost my speed on the greens, lost my line, lost everything for just two, three holes and could never really recover from that.

Im very disappointed. I just unraveled. Hit a bad tee shot at No. 10 and never really recovered. I just started it a little left of where I wanted to, hit that tree and I dont think anyones been over there in those cabins before. It derailed me a bit and it was hard to get it back. You know its going to be hard to take for a few days, but Ill get over it. Ive got to take the positives. I led this golf tournament for 63 holes. Ill have plenty more chances. Hopefully it will build a little bit of character in me, as well.

Jason Day, who played with McElroy the first three days, said he was stunned to see his friend in free-falling disarray as he looked up at leader boards all around.

He played wonderfully the first three days and he didnt miss a beat, said Day, a 23-year-old Australian who birdied his last hole Sunday and earned a tie for second place in his first Masters, two shots behind 26-year-old champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa.

Hes definitely going to come back and hes definitely going to win a lot of majors, a lot of tournaments. Just the player he is. Its unfortunate the way he played, but youre going to see a lot of Rory.

Phil Mickelson, the defending champion who never got it going all week and tied for 27th at one-under 287, wasnt all that surprised that McIlroy couldnt hold on, despite that four-shot lead.

Its hard to sleep on the lead, Mickelson said. Its hard to come out and play aggressively when guys are chasing after you and youve got the lead. Guys want this thing so bad, sometimes its hard to perform at the highest level.

And what will McIlroy learn from the experience?

I think it was a Sunday in a major, and what it can do to you, he said. This is my first experience at it, and hopefully the next time Im in this position, Ill be able to handle it a little better. I didnt handle it particularly well today, obviously. But it was a character building day, put it that way. Ill come out stronger for it.

A little love might help a tad, too.

Shapiro can be reached at badgerlen@aol.com.