Take us back to the final round of the 2011 Masters. What was your mental state on the 10th tee, just before your round imploded?
I still had a one-shot lead and that's what I was trying to tell myself: You're still leading, if only by one shot. The thing that I was always trying to do that Sunday was just stay ahead, instead of setting myself a number -- like, OK, go out and shoot 68 and see what happens. All I was trying to do was just keep my nose in front. It was probably a bad mental strategy that I had throughout the day. That's something I learned.
Did you sense that the wheels were about to pop off?
No, not at all.
So what happened next -- the snap hook into the cabins that triggered a string of poor holes -- surprised you as much as it did everyone watching at home?
Yeah, definitely. I shot one-over on the front nine; it's not like I played that badly. I felt like if I just went out and played solid on the back nine that I still had a chance. Obviously that tee shot at 10 is where things started to go wrong.
The lasting image is of you on the 13th tee with your head buried in your arm. What was going through your mind at that moment?
Well, I had a terrible run: I tripled 10, bogeyed 11, doubled 12. I actually hit two great shots into 11 -- hit a 9-iron right over the pin to 12 feet and three-putted that. And I hit another good shot into 12 and then four-putted that for a double. But I was still standing on the 13th tee thinking if I could birdie my way in, I'd still have a chance. But when I hit it left into the creek, that was my last chance gone. That's when I knew.
Many amateurs turn to jelly when they get nervous or flustered. How did you feel physically when you were going through that?
It felt like -- especially on the 10th after my fourth shot hit the tree -- everything just seemed to go so quickly. I hit that shot and then all of a sudden it felt like I was on the 11th tee. Everything was a bit of a blur for a few holes.
Describe the phone conversation you had with your parents the next morning.
It was just before I was going to go to the airport. I spoke to my dad and that was fine. I didn't have any tears then, and then I got on the phone with my mum, and that's when I broke down. She said, “Look, we're still so proud of you. You'll have plenty more chances. Don't let one bad day ruin all the hard work you've put in over the years.” That was when it all sort of hit me. I just felt like I'd let everyone down in some way.
Are you a crier by nature?
A little bit, yeah. I'll cry at the movies and things like that.
Do you remember the last time you felt emotion as intense as what you experienced at Augusta?
[Long pause] No, never like that. I'd never cried because of golf before. And I've never cried after a win. I've maybe gotten a little choked up, but I've never burst into tears.
Not even when you hugged your father, Gerry, after winning the U.S. Open two months later? You didn't get a little misty-eyed?
No, that was a different feeling. Just relief -- I don't know what that was.
Greg Norman called you after the Masters. What's the best piece of advice he gave you?
He told me something I put into practice at the U.S. Open, actually -- he told me not to watch any TV during the weeks of tournaments, to not read any newspapers or magazines. He basically told me to wrap myself in my own little bubble. And he said if there's ever anything I need or wanted help with, that he's always just a phone call away.
Do you care what people write about you?
It's hard to avoid at times, but I try not to read too much of it. Especially after the U.S. Open, I tried not to read too much because there was so much hype, and people were saying, “You're going to be the next this and that.” You don't want to read too much of the positive stuff, either.
The hysteria after your U.S. Open win was Tiger-like. Did it feel over-the-top to you?
Yeah, to be honest it all felt like it was a bit too much, especially when I got home. I couldn't go anywhere. It was pretty tough for the first couple of weeks. But as I said, people have short memories, and if you don't play well for the first few weeks after a win, they'll start wondering why you're not playing well. It just comes with what we do.
On the Saturday night before you won at Congressional, you were out past midnight eating steaks with Chubby and the boys.
Yeah, we went to Ruth's Chris.
Did you intentionally try to stay looser that night versus Saturday night at the Masters?
To be honest, the night before the last round at Augusta was very relaxed as well. The difference was in the mornings. At Augusta, I woke up on Sunday and was a little bit tense from the start. All I was thinking about was the round. On the Sunday morning of the U.S. Open, I just went down and had breakfast with my dad at the hotel, then went back up to the room and watched a movie. I just sort of tried to wrap myself in my own little bubble -- like Greg said -- while at the same time stay very relaxed. I made sure not to turn on the TV and watch ESPN or the Golf Channel. I stayed off Twitter. I stayed off everything. And it seemed to work. I was a lot more relaxed going into that final round at Congressional. I knew what I needed to do differently from the Masters.
Which was what exactly?
Looking at the way I play golf normally when I'm in contention, I chat with J.P. [Fitzgerald, his caddie], my head is up, I'm looking around, I'm my normal self. On that final day at Augusta I was very insular, sort of looking down all the time, looking at my shoes, tucking my shirt in, instead of having good body language. That's something that was very important to me that last day at Congressional.
The “McIlroy strut” was in full effect.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
Are you aware that you're strutting when you're doing it?
People mention it to me all the time, and to be honest, I try not to do it as much. The thing is, I'm just so -- I'm having fun out there and I'm enjoying myself. But, yeah, I do have a little bit of a bounce in my step, and that's something I definitely had on the Sunday at Congressional.
If your Twitter feed is any indication, things seem to be going great with you and Caroline Wozniacki. Do you guys spend time comparing notes about your professional lives?
Not really. Not now. It's been eight months now [that we've been dating]. At the start, though, yes. We'd talk about how we feel going into a final or a final day, what's it like. But now it's just nice to have someone there to -- like after Sunday at the Match Play, where I'm a little bit disappointed, it's nice to have someone who understands. She's lost finals, she knows what it's like. You sort of know what to say. But, you know, we've got so much in common and that's why we get on so well. It's going great. I'm probably the happiest I've ever been off the golf course.
Do you think about marriage and having kids and how that might affect your career?
Yeah, of course I do. I think it's something that goes through everyone's mind every now and again. But you look at someone like Luke Donald, who's married, and he said that having Elle, his first child, was one of the reasons he played so well last year. It can work both ways for guys. The most important thing is that you're happy. If you're happy off the golf course, it should enable you to play better on it.
This article first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Golf Magazine. The May issue is on newsstands and the tablet version is available for free for magazine subscribers on iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, Nook Color and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Learn more