Augusta, Ga. — It’s a little known fact that Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion applies to golf as well as space travel or sitting in a bathtub. The law states that for every action, there is an equal an opposite reaction. So, to stop the world spinning off its axis, for the emotionally shutdown and defensive Tiger Woods there is the self-deprecating and refreshingly honest Rory McIlroy.
While Woods hides behind monosyllabic clichés (hey, it is what it is), McIlroy engages his audience with humor and charm. Woods is bored with the media circus. The two have been banging heads against brick walls for 15 years. Meanwhile, McIlroy is reveling in his moment. He is loving the limelight. It extends to the golf course, too. While golf fans revere Tiger the golfer, they love Rory as a golfer and as a kid. It is a love affair that began after McIlroy’s meltdown on this hallowed turf on Sunday at the 2011 Masters. The Belfast boy took his humiliation like a man and America wanted to give him a hug and tell him that everything was going to be OK and that he’d probably win the U.S. Open by, oh, eight shots.
The love affair continued on Tuesday morning at Augusta National as McIlroy held court for 30 minutes in his standing-room-only press conference. He had the air of a young man at peace with himself and his world. Confident to laugh at himself and humble enough to praise Tiger, too.
But it could have easily been so different for McIlroy. The world watched his confidence unravel live on TV last year after that snapped hook into the cabins alongside the 10th fairway. He said he knew his chance to win had been blown away over the tall pines and down the Savannah River by the time he played the 13th.
“I laughed with JP [Fitzgerald, his caddie] walking off the 18th green,” McIlroy said. It was the perhaps the laugh of resignation, the laugh of a condemned man. He later cried to his mother on the telephone and admitted it was two weeks before others were able to laugh with him about his Sunday slide.
“It wasn’t the end of the world,” McIlroy said. "It’s only golf. It’s not like anyone died out there that Sunday.”
On Tuesday, McIlroy revealed that in the days that followed he replayed that tee shot on 10 and the way he approached that day a million times in his head.
“To be honest it was such a blur,” he said with a wry smile. “It was really hard to remember.”
Just then McIlroy’s cell phone rang in his pocket. “Oops, sorry, no phones at Augusta,” he said with a laugh, hoping not to be escorted off the premises.
Telephones at Augusta Nationals are viewed as instruments of evil and not to be trusted in the hands of the general public. Or world-class athletes, for that matter. Much laughter abounded in the interview room as McIlroy was caught red-handed, or maybe that should be green-jacketed, by the Augusta National member officiating the press conference. “We didn’t hear anything,” the Green Jacket whispered with perfect comedy timing.
McIlroy hadn't returned to Augusta National to face his demons until a practice round last week. Inevitably he had to walk the line to the 10th tee.
“I can’t believe how close those cabins are. They are only 50 yards off the tee,” he said, laughing again as if giving his audience permission to laugh with him. “I had a quick glance [at the cabins] on the way past walking down the middle of the fairway. Hopefully I’ll do the same thing this week.”
So, lesson learned then from last year’s catastrophe. “As a person and as a golfer I wasn’t ready to win the Masters, McIlroy said. "I wasn’t ready to win a major. It was a huge learning curve.”
Of course, it didn’t take him long to get over the curve. His coronation at Congressional was just two months later. Studying the tapes of his Masters meltdown, McIlroy noticed his out-of-character hangdog gait.
“It was trying to be too focused, too perfect,” he said. “I sort of have a bounce in my step and head up looking around at other people. That day I was always looking at the ground. I was very insular.”
McIlroy then demonstrated how his shoulders were hunched over.
“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 said.
Again, lesson learned. The McIlroy bounce was back at the U.S. Open. And it has been ever since.
McIlroy has been tapping into the vast Masters vault of memories and insight belonging to a certain Jack Nicklaus, winner of six green jackets, as he has been hanging out at Nickalus’s Bears Club in Jupiter, Fla. That’s to be expected. But the surprise guru who McIlroy said has helped him most to get over last year’s collapse is Greg Norman, winner of zero green jackets -- but Augusta’s undisputed expert on how it feels to choke away a lead among the azaleas. A phone call from the Australian resonated with the boy from Belfast while McIlroy was in Malaysia the week after last year's Masters.
“It was great coming from him because he had been in the same position in 1996 when [Nick] Faldo won. But I think 1986 as well -- 1987, sorry, I wasn’t born,” McIlroy said, again to much laughter. "That was big for me because I think he knew more than anyone else how I was feeling at that point.”
McIlroy said Norman advised him to retreat into a bubble to keep out interference and distraction. McIlroy has already announced that this week will be a Twitter-free zone. But on Tuesday the 22-year-old invited the media into his bubble with open arms. It’s too late for the 36-year-old Tiger. His bubble burst in 2009. The construction of his new bubble is coming along nicely.