CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At just 22 years old, Rory McIlroy has won on both the European and the PGA tours, was a key part of a victorious European Ryder Cup team and has been a regular in the top 10 of the World Golf Rankings — all while showing the maturity of a seasoned pro.
But despite his impressive resume, McIlroy says he wasn’t ready to win at Augusta last month.
McIlroy, the defending champion at the Wells Fargo Championship, met with the media Tuesday morning at Quail Hollow, his first appearance in the U.S. since losing a four-shot lead on Sunday at the Masters. McIlroy was tied for the lead heading into the back nine but triple-bogeyed No. 10 and never recovered, eventually finishing T15.
“I displayed a few weaknesses in my game that I need to work on,” McIlroy said, adding later that the weaknesses weren’t in his swing. “More mentally than anything else, just trying to handle the situation better.”
In the final round, McIlroy was paired with the 2009 Masters champion, Angel Cabrera. Both are fast players, and McIlroy said that wasn’t necessarily a good thing when they were waiting on shots and his round was spiraling out on control.
Last year, Butch Harmon watched two of his students, Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney, go through the same experience of falling apart on the Sunday of a major. (Johnson shot 82 at the U.S. Open and Watney shot 81 at the PGA Championship.) Unlike a team sport, Harmon can’t call a timeout, pull his guys aside and give them advice. So what would he tell them if given the opportunity?
“I would probably tell them to slow down,” Harmon said. “Just do everything slower. Walk slower, take the club out of the bag slower, make your decisions slower to gear your nervous system down. You know you’re good enough to play, it’s just a matter of not getting in your own way.”
Watney and Johnson rebounded quickly with strong finishes and big wins. That’s crucial, Harmon said, to getting over a major collapse.
After his disastrous final round at the U.S. Open, and bunkergate at the PGA Championship, Johnson tied for ninth at the Barclays and won the BMW Championship.
“All the things that happened [at Pebble and Whistling Straits], I took and applied Sunday [at the BMW],” Johnson said in an interview with Golf Magazine. “I hit it great, never got rattled and stayed in my routine. I knew if I hung in there, I would be fine.”
Watney finished 2010 with top-six finishes at the Tour Championship and the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. He kept it going in 2011, opening with four consecutive top 10s before winning at Doral.
“I hated to go through [losing a major], but I think I am better prepared now,” Watney said. “I tried to view it as if I could learn from it then, although it was a horrible day on the scorecard, it’d be a good day as far as feedback and experience.”
“If that is going to define me then I shouldn’t even tee it up next week,” he said.
McIlroy seems to be taking the same advice. A week after the Masters, he flew to Malaysia and tied for third place.
“It was nice to be able just to get back into contention, play well again and not let what happened the week before affect me in any way,” he said.
While there, McIlroy talked with Greg Norman, who famously lost a six-shot lead at Augusta in 1996. The Shark’s advice?
“Don’t listen to [the media],” McIlroy said.
After a few weeks off, McIlroy said he is looking forward to defending his title this week at Quail Hollow. He called last year’s course-record, final-round 62, which included a 30 on the back nine, “the best performance of my career so far.”
Not a bad place to move on from a major collapse.
“It’s only golf at the end of the day,” McIlroy said. “No one died. Very happy with my life, very happy with what’s going on, very happy with my game. So I’m looking forward to this week.”