AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – In the aftermath of his Masters meltdown, one phone call that meant the most to Rory McIlroy was from Greg Norman, the master of the Sunday collapse at Augusta National.
Norman had four good chances to slip on a green jacket, the most unforgettable in 1996 when he blew a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo. So the Shark could speak from experience, and the kid was more than willing to listen.
“I think it was great coming from him because he had sort of been in the same position in 1996 – well, `96 where Faldo won, but I think `86 as well, 1987,'' McIlroy said, pausing to try to get the years right. “Sorry, I wasn't born.''
It's that kind of humor that has helped McIlroy move on – that and the U.S. Open title he won a few months later.
Still fresh this week for the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland is how he lost a four-shot lead in the final round. There was the tee shot on the 10th hole that bounced around the trees and landed behind the cabins. There was a three-putt on the 11th, a four-putt on the 12th and eventually an 80 on his scorecard.
“Obviously, the first time I played the back nine last week, there's memories that come back and memories that you probably don't want,'' McIlroy said. “It's fine. I got that all out of the way, and just looking forward to this week and looking forward to try to put myself in contention to try and win this thing.''
Norman's first big opportunity was in 1986, the year he had the 54-hole lead at all four majors. He sent a 4-iron over the 18th green in the final round, and his bogey made Jack Nicklaus a Masters champion for the sixth time. Norman won the British Open that summer, spent the better part of the next decade at No. 1 in the world and a perennial favorite at the majors.
That's where McIlroy is now.
He won with a record score at Congressional for his first major. He rose to No. 1 in the world last month, though only for two weeks, when he won the Honda Classic. And, like Norman, he still doesn't have a green jacket.
But he's young. He's super talented. And he copes with success and failure with a refreshing dose of self-deprecating humor.
Did he confront any demons on the 10th tee when he played last week?
“Not really. I mean, I can't believe how close the cabins are. They are only 50 yards off the tee,'' McIlroy said as the room filled with laughter. “But no, look, it's great to be able to laugh about it now.''
It wasn't always that easy.
He cried on the phone with his mother after the Masters. There were days of reflection, when McIlroy realized he must not have been ready to win a major. He noticed when he watched videotape of the final round that the bounce in his step was missing. He was looking down, not up. Joy gave way to stress.
Seven putts on the 11th and 12th holes is what did him in. Still, most remember the 10th, and for good reason. Some players barely notice those cabins left of the 10th fairway. Not many can imagine a player behind stuck behind them.
Luke Donald was playing last week, and his local caddie told him guests at Augusta National rarely play the 10th hole without asking where McIlroy's tee shot wound up.
Not even McIlroy is sure what happened on that shot, much less the rest of the day.
“It was such a blur,'' he said. “It was really hard to remember. It wasn't just the tee shot. It was way before that. It was just how I approached the whole day. I went through it a million times. It's something that I learned from, and I quickly forgot about and moved on. And moved on pretty well.''
A year ago, he came to Augusta National hopeful of winning. Now, he is all business. Winning is the priority. He brought three friends from Northern Ireland with him last year. His parents are here this time.
McIlroy didn't get into specifics on his phone conversation with Norman, which was two days after the Masters.
“He said a couple things to me that I found very useful and put into practice, especially weeks like this where there's so much hype and there's so much buildup,'' McIlroy said. “I've said this before, but create this little bubble around yourself and just try and get into that and don't let any of the outside interference come into that.''