Rory McIlroy walked to the 10th tee at Augusta National in April with the lead in the Masters. He had led the tournament, or been tied for the lead, from the first day. He looked lost, though. His lead had dwindled from four shots to one. His confidence was visibly shaken. He hit his drive and immediately knew. He had snap-hooked it up near the cabins, where no one could remember seeing a ball go. "Is it out-of-bounds?" he asked helplessly. He was headed for a triple bogey, a round of 80, a 15th-place finish and the pity of the gallery.
\nTwo months later ...
\nRory McIlroy walked to the 10th tee at Congressional Country Club with the lead in the U.S. Open. He had led the tournament from the first day. He looked blissful. His lead was eight shots. He was at 16 under par, the lowest score in the history of the U.S. Open. He hit his six-iron and immediately knew. He bent his legs and pleaded a little. The ball landed just feet from the flagstick, skipped up a small hill and slowly rolled back down to within inches of the cup, while fans went out of their minds with joy.
\n"I knew then," McIlroy would say in his understated way, "that it was my tournament to lose."
\nSuper Bowls ... World Series ... NBA Finals ... we tend to root for our own. But every now and again, golf gives us a chance to all root together. That's part of the charm of the game. It happened in 1986, when a legend named Jack Nicklaus, years beyond his prime, summoned a series of magical shots on Sunday and won the Masters. It happened in '91, when a chain-smoking ninth alternate from Dardanelle, Ark., named John Daly won the PGA Championship by hitting balls so hard you could almost hear them screaming. It happened in 1997, when a prodigy named Tiger Woods blew away the field at the Masters and for the first time made golf look cool, really cool, not only to those who play but also to those who are just drawn to cool things.
\nIt happened again at Congressional, on a windless weekend, on a soft course, when the U.S. Open was won from beginning to end by another golf prodigy, this one from Northern Ireland. Gerry and Rosie McIlroy worked four jobs combined to give young Rory a chance to play golf. He had the gift, you know. When he was four, they knew it. At 18 he shot a 68 in his first-ever round at the British Open. At 19 he won a tournament in Dubai. At 20 he won in Charlotte with a breathtaking 10-under closing round of 62. And at 21, oh, at 21, he shot a course record 63 at St. Andrews, led the PGA Championship on Sunday and, yes, led and then lost the Masters.
\nBy then, everyone knew Rory McIlroy had the gift. Still there was something more happening in Bethesda, Md., on Sunday than the arrival of golf's next great player. There was a shift, a welcome one, in the game. For years, golf had been dominated by Woods, and make no mistake, that was thrilling. No one -- not even Nicklaus or Ben Hogan -- played like Tiger at his peak. He won so relentlessly that other golfers seemed to wilt the instant Tiger seized a weekend lead.
\nBut Woods was a distant champion. He made no pretense otherwise. His interviews were curt and bland. He cursed and griped and pumped his fist on the golf course, but beyond that he made it known: He wasn't in the mood to share his emotions. Don't misunderstand, this isn't a complaint. Athletes do not owe us anything more than their best effort. But Tiger took that to a new extreme. He played cold and beautiful golf, then retired to a secret life that eventually would unravel in the tabloids.
\nMcIlroy is different. He lets people in. When his game blew up at Augusta, he answered all the questions gracefully, and more, he let people share his agony. When he traveled to Haiti for UNICEF earlier this month, he talked about how that experience had moved him. He seems to want to share his gift. The other golfers looked genuinely intimidated by Woods; they look genuinely happy for McIlroy. "Rory is impossible not to like," says Jason Day, who had the misfortune of shooting eight under par at the U.S. Open only to finish a distant second.
\nMcIlroy's game is astonishing. Woods overpowered courses and willed putts into the hole; his style was his own. McIlroy, meanwhile, conjures up golf's great players. His near-perfect swing reminds some of Hogan and others of Sam Snead and still others of Bobby Jones. His high iron shots evoke Nicklaus. Watching him play well is almost like watching old movies.
\nThings change now, of course. McIlroy becomes the favorite. He will face the impossible expectations that have crushed many promising golfers. Tom Watson has said that trying to become the best golfer in the world is one thing, being the best is much harder. There is no way to know how McIlroy will handle it.
\nBut we can make a pretty good guess. In April, McIlroy fumbled away a big lead at Augusta. It was an epic collapse, one that could have pulverized his spirit. Last weekend McIlroy turned in one of the greatest performances in the history of major-championship golf. If he can improve that much in two months, just imagine how bright the future of golf looks.