AUGUSTA, Ga. — Maybe it was physics that finally caught up to Rory McIlroy. After all, a world spinning as quickly as his is bound to come off its axis sooner or later.
Imagine being the world's No. 1 amateur, shooting a first-round 67 at the British Open and turning pro all within a few months of your 18th birthday. Or consider winning a European PGA Tour event, rising to No. 17 in the world rankings and earning $2 million or so by the time you are 19.
Think about idolizing Tiger Woods as a boy in Northern Ireland, then hearing your name called as Europe's latest answer to the greatest golfer in the world.
Picture all that and you will have an idea of the frenzy surrounding the curly-haired teenager in the purple shirt at Augusta National on Friday afternoon. An eagle on No. 13 and a birdie on No. 15 had moved him ahead of Woods, as well as 85 others, and had people talking about the most successful Masters debut since Fuzzy Zoeller won 30 years ago.
Heading to the tee on No. 16, he was 4 under and near the top of the leaderboard.
Three holes later, he was 1 over and in danger of missing the cut.
Four hours after that, he was nearly disqualified.
And so it goes for a career in full sprint.
As it turns out, McIlroy avoided the cut and the disqualification and is paired with defending champion Trevor Immelman in the third group to go out this morning. Masters officials determined McIlroy did not commit a rules infraction when he kicked sand in a bunker on No. 18 after he failed to get his ball out on his first attempt.
Rules prohibit a player from testing the condition of a hazard, and kicking the sand could have been interpreted that way. The Competition Committee had McIlroy return to the course at 8:40 p.m. to review videotape before making a ruling. Had he been penalized a stroke, McIlroy could have been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.
"You can't do that," McIlroy said of his bunker woes, even before he knew of the controversy. "You just can't do that."
Like everything else in his life, hard lessons came at McIlroy in a hurry Friday. He was in good shape for par after hitting a tee shot about 25 feet from the hole on No. 16, but his first putt ran 10 feet past. His next putt went about 6 feet past in the other direction. He missed again going back and took a double bogey.
It got even worse on 18 when he landed in the bunker on his approach shot and took two strokes to get out. By the time he was finished, he had triple bogey.
"I can take a lot of positives from this," McIlroy said, although he did not sound convinced. "I put myself in contention."
We have seen this before. A child prodigy, a hot amateur, a fast-starting pro, and suddenly the comparisons to Woods are creeping into the conversation.
The difference with McIlroy is it's not just talent being talked about. He has a charisma, a type of swagger, an almost rock-star-like presence that has served him well in his short time on the tour.
He grew up an only child outside Belfast, with his father working three jobs at a time to finance his golf career. To this day, his mother works the overnight shift in a factory, and his father is a food manager at a golf club.
McIlroy has finished in the top 20 in his first four PGA Tour events of this season, and he became one of the European tour's youngest champions when he won the Dubai Desert Classic in February.
"He is, by far, the best young player I've ever played with," Geoff Ogilvy said recently. "He hits the ball well, chips and putts well, and his demeanor is fantastic. The hype is fair because he is the real deal."
It certainly looked that way for much of Friday. His threesome was right behind Woods' group and by midafternoon was drawing a Tiger-sized gallery. McIlroy's game is much like his career so far. He plays quickly, loudly and with great humor. He and Anthony Kim were talking and laughing through much of their round.
"Rory is a great guy," Kim said. "He's 19, but he carries himself like a veteran."
As quickly as his fame is growing, there are still lessons to be learned. McIlroy seemed to lose his focus when things fell apart on the final three holes, and his brisk play did not serve him well on No. 18.
His round over and his mood ruined, McIlroy hurried past reporters waiting to talk to him off the 18th green. Security guards guided him through a crowd of patrons and onto the grounds of the clubhouse.
Once there, McIlroy found a secluded spot a stone's throw from Magnolia Lane and talked quietly with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. An elderly clubhouse attendant went by carrying a bag of fruit and smiled widely at the teenager.
"How are you doing," she said brightly.
"Not too good," McIlroy answered softly.
"It's okay," she said, "you still have two more days to go."
Two more days, and a lifetime.
Take your time and enjoy it.