AUGUSTA — Sigmund Freud once said of the Irish, “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.”
So, do not lead Rory McIlroy to the couch and invite him to reveal dark nightmares of pull hooks and haunted cabins off Augusta National’s 10th fairway.
Just take the Ulster lad at his word when he says that he has returned one year later to the scene of his meltdown a healthy and better player.
Believe him when he says that he can laugh at the memory of last year’s grotesque tee shot, the one that pinged off a pine tree and landed between two of Augusta National’s quaint guest cabins. It was a place where no player had gone before or is ever likely to go again, barring a sudden need to use a phone or a bathroom or beg a glass of sweet tea.
That single swing set off a Sunday shame spiral for McIlroy, one in which he transformed a four-shot lead at the beginning of the final round into a 15th-place finish by the end. The triple-bogey 7 he fashioned from between the Peek and Berkman cabins on No. 10 went far toward the back-nine 43 that ruined him. That was the day the young player acclaimed the next big thing was put on notice that he was also flesh, bone and therefore flawed.
His putting guru, Dave Stockton, has since suggested that Augusta National put down some sort of plaque at the spot where McIlroy’s tee ball on No. 10 landed, it being so historically wayward.
The player with whom McIlroy currently is jostling for the top spot in the world rankings, Luke Donald, told a story of how the shot is being woven into the intricate tradition of this place. When playing the course last week, Donald asked the local caddie he had in tow to show him where Rory’s wild shot at 10 settled.
Donald said the caddie informed him, “You know, there’s not a single person who doesn’t go by here and ask where Rory’s ball was.”
For McIlroy, his return to the 10th was uneventful. He opted to whistle past that graveyard on his first practice round here since the blowup.
“I just had a quick glance [toward the cabins] on the way past walking down the middle of the fairway last week,” he said. “And hopefully, I’ll do the same thing during the week.”
Ultimately, McIlroy determined that he did not win last year’s Masters “because I wasn’t ready to win the Masters; wasn’t ready to win a major.” He was just 21 then. He considers himself a much wiser 22-year-old now.
The upright way McIlroy handled the whole episode last year impressed those whose questions he patiently answered afterward and may have actually served to strengthen him for the success that followed. Two months after the Masters fiasco, he won the U.S. Open by eight strokes. He won twice more, both here and abroad, and after his victory at the Honda Classic this year, momentarily held the world’s No. 1 ranking.
Much has changed for McIlroy the last year. He switched girlfriends, going from a hometown girl to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. He switched management, leaving Chubby Chandler’s International Sports Management and sending ripples of resentment through that tightly knit bunch. Engaging in what one Irish tabloid called a “furious Twitter row,” McIlroy and one of Chubby’s guys, Lee Westwood, exchanged a couple of pithy messages until McIlroy “unfollowed” his former mate on Twitter.
What hasn’t changed is McIlroy’s schedule for ascending to the summit of his sport. He remains the golfer identified as the next generation’s Tiger Woods. Those seeking a simplistic theme to this Masters have, in fact, declared it a two-man cage match between Woods and McIlroy.
As part of the coronation process, McIlroy had to stumble at some point and then show the ability to quickly regain his balance. He had to show he could handle inevitable failure — because failure is the partner to every success story.
Last year’s Masters was McIlroy’s big reveal.
“He stood there and took [the questioning about his ugly back nine] like a man, and I think that’s really important. Because he handled it so well, it helped him grow as a player immensely,” former U.S. Open champion and current ESPN commentator Andy North said.
“We forget sometimes how young he is; he’s just a kid yet. He handled it so well, much better than we’ve seen some veteran players handle defeats like that.”
McIlroy won’t disagree that he showed a surpassing maturity that day.
“Maybe I’ve just got the mindset that I can handle it a little better than others and feel like, at that point, I had many more chances to win a major or win a Masters. It wasn’t the end of the world. Again, it’s only golf. It’s not like anyone died out there.”
Part of his preparation for this Masters was studying his body language from the last one. In review, he hardly recognized himself coming down the stretch last year. He saw a normally open, gregarious player walking with his head down and his shoulders hunched, staring holes into the perfect Augusta National grass.
“Sort of like I didn’t want the outside world to get in instead of embracing the situation and saying, ‘You know, I’ve got a four-shot lead at the Masters, let’s enjoy this.’”
He has gotten all his coping out of the way, McIlroy said. He made his teary call home to his mother on the Monday following his Masters collapse — “the first time I cried about anything in a long time.” He absorbed the condolences and advice that flowed his way — most meaningful, he said, was a buck-up call from famous Masters victim Greg Norman.
And now, requiring no further therapy, he says, “I’m coming back here a much more experienced player. I feel like a much better player than the player who came here last year.”
But isn’t it choice to imagine a scene Sunday, McIlroy contending as all golf’s sages say he will, coming to the 10th tee, calling for his driver? Imagine that precise moment as he is drawing back the club, when a fairway must be hit and all bad thoughts must be truly purged.