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Rory McIlroy's head still held high after a painful low

Rory McIlroy hits his second shot to the fairway on the 10th hole. The 21-year-old went on to make triple bogey and lose the lead.

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Rory McIlroy hits his second shot to the fairway on the 10th hole. The 21-year-old went on to make triple bogey and lose the lead.

AUGUSTA, Ga.

For the champion, there is fame. There is a jacket of green and a paycheck of even finer green. There is a place in history inscribed with his name.

For the vanquished, there is only regret. Today, tomorrow and forever. Friends might help ease it, success might eventually dim it, but nothing will ever completely erase it.

Just ask Jean Van de Velde. Or Scott Hoch. Or Len Mattiace.

Over the years, we have seen enough hearts break and enough tears fall to have a small understanding of what it must be like to see the dream of a lifetime slip from your grasp.

And perhaps that helps explain what happened at the end of the 75th Masters on Sunday evening. Charl Schwartzel had already won the tournament, hugged his wife and was halfway to golf heaven when Rory McIlroy came up the 18th fairway.

The applause began, polite and steady. And as McIlroy came nearer to the green, it grew in volume, intensity and, yes, in pity. It reached a point where the 21-year-old from outside Belfast, Northern Ireland, had no choice but to remove his cap and sheepishly wave.

"I don't know if people were just feeling sorry for me or whatever it was, but I'm incredibly grateful for it," McIlroy said later. "It was a really tough day for me, and for the crowds to still be behind me like that makes it a lot easier to take."

McIlroy did not win the Masters on Sunday. In the end, he was not even close.

In what will be remembered as one of the most rapid and thorough collapses in history, McIlroy went from leading almost every one of the first 63 holes, and 31/2 days of the tournament, to free falling into infamy in about 35 minutes.

It began with a missed fairway on No. 10 that somehow ended up between two of the famed white and black-trimmed cabins. Two shots later, McIlroy was off the fairway again and banging a ball off a tree.

By the time he finished the hole with triple bogey, McIlroy had gone from first place to seventh. And the bleeding did not stop there. His putter chose that moment to abandon him, and McIlroy followed with bogey and double bogey.

When his tee shot went left on No. 13, McIlroy buried his head in the crook of his arm with the club supporting his weight.

"I sort of realized then, unless I birdied my way in, I didn't have a chance," McIlroy said. "I was trying my hardest. If I had a birdie at 13 and a birdie at 15 … but once I hit my tee shot left on 13, I realized that was it."

McIlroy went from starting the day at 12 under with a four-stroke lead to shooting 8-over 80 and finishing 10 strokes behind in a tie for 15th.

"My heart goes out to him," said Luke Donald, who tied for second.

The final misfortune is that most of those watching this spectacular implosion never got to see the grace and dignity with which McIlroy handled himself.

His eyes looked red, but he never came close to tears. He stopped to answer questions three times on his way to the clubhouse, never making excuses or asking for sympathy.

He greeted his boyhood friends with a slight grin and then paused for a soft kiss on the cheek from his girlfriend. Upon entering the locker room and changing from his golf shoes to a pair of sneakers, he tried to explain the inexplicable once again.

"I just need more experience to try and hang in there and grind it out," he said. "It's never nice to be leading in a tournament and do what I did (Sunday), but it happens."

The difference between McIlroy and, say, Mattiace is that his performance in the first three days of the Masters was no fluke.

He is, without a doubt, one of the most talented golfers in the world. His future is bright enough that it might one day push this day's memories into the shadows.

Angel Cabrera, who played in the final twosome with him, said as much when he held McIlroy's face in his hands afterward.

"It's a pity what happened to him," Cabrera said. "I told him when we were finished that he is very young, and he can win this tournament many times.'

Still, there will never be an escape from the thought that something greater than a golf tournament was lost for McIlroy on Sunday.

This would have been a moment like none other. The chance for a college-aged lad from Northern Ireland to introduce himself to the world. A chance to match some of the accomplishments of Tiger Woods, the golfer he has vowed to measure himself against.

"I sometimes forget that I'm 21 years old, and I think the public sometimes forgets as well," McIlroy said. "It is very disappointing. It's the worst afternoon I've had on a golf course. But I'll get over it. I'll be fine."

Rory McIlroy's head still held high after a painful low 04/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 10, 2011 11:02pm]
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