Hate to be Rude: McIlroy's Augusta lesson

Rory McIlroy waits on the 10th hole after an errant tee shot during the final round of the 2011 Masters.

Rory McIlroy waits on the 10th hole after an errant tee shot during the final round of the 2011 Masters.

• The biggest Masters surprise was not the winner but the most conspicuous loser.

Everybody seems to say the Masters starts on the 10th hole Sunday. Well, Rory McIlroy showed that it can basically end there, too.

The 21-year-old Ulsterman, of course, hit two trees, an azalea bush and almost a cabin en route to making triple-bogey 7 and losing a lead he had had all week.

For years the left side of Augusta National’s second hole has been called the Delta ticket counter, for a player might as well fly home if he drives his ball there. If you watched Len Mattiace in the 2003 playoff and McIlroy on Sunday, then you know the left side of the 10th green is no bargain, either.

In these rich, modern times, you might say it’s like making an early reservation on NetJets.

Having seen Jean Van de Velde blow a three-shot lead on the last hole at Carnoustie in 1999 and Tiger Woods win the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg, nothing much in golf surprises me anymore. But I was blown away by the unraveling of McIlroy, who went from total control to completely out of it in a matter of a few holes.

In terms of dark golf images, the sight of McIlroy standing between those cabins about 150 yards from the 10th tee comes close to rivaling the snapshot of Van de Velde standing in the Barry Burn with his shoes and socks off. The main difference in the two shocks is that JVD’s was a sudden blow, McIlroy’s a slow demise.

That’s golf. For McIlroy, that’s also a matter of Sunday pressure at a major and being 21. He may be a superstar in waiting, but he’s also learning. As gifted as he is, he has won but once in Europe and once here. Some people seem to forget that.

Here’s what McIlroy needs to remember. Vijay Singh was 35 when he won the first of his three majors. Same with Padraig Harrington. Phil Mickelson was 33 when he won the first of his four.

Not everyone is on the Tiger Woods fast track.

McIlroy also needs to forget. He needs to forget about that 80, about that triple at 10, about that four-putt double bogey at 12. He somehow needs to forget that he started the final round four shots ahead and ended up, amazingly, 10 shots behind.

If that wasn’t bad enough, he had to look at the green jacket on the way to Asia because he and Schwartzel, managed by the same group, were on the same private plane.

Collapse aside, I still say McIlroy has the most upside of any player under 30, that he’ll have the most major bottle caps among the current kids when counted years from now.

He’ll be fine. Before his 22nd birthday he has compiled three top 3s in majors, not to mention that 63-hole lead. He’s crazy long off the tee, and straight as well. He seems to have no weakness, except the lack of victories and, on Sunday anyway, a putting stroke that decelerated three short putts left on the front nine.

He’ll fix it, he’ll learn, he’ll forget and he’ll be back. He’s a terrific kid, mature beyond his years – as a person and golfer. Last week made him even older if not wiser.

• Plug one hole and another springs a leak. So it is with Woods’ golf game.

Woods has spent so much time on his swing overhaul that apparently he neglected working on his short game. And that’s one of the reasons his bid for a fifth green jacket came up short, four shots off the lead.

Woods hit four bad chips on the front nine of the third round and then had four three-putts during a 20-hole stretch after that. You can’t three-putt six times for the week and win a major. He pushed the limit when he three-putted four times in winning the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg, but he made up for it by making several bombs at Torrey Pines.

Woods’ ball-striking at Augusta was the best we’ve seen it since 2009. He ranked fifth in greens in regulation, hit 24 of 28 fairways on the weekend and looked like he was playing shots instead of swing.

Instructor Sean Foley said Woods hasn’t put “tremendous focus” on his short game while retooling his swing. You can expect that to change.

• Interesting trends have emerged while Woods has tried to put the pieces back together post-scandal.

The winners of the past three majors have been an average age of 26: Louis Oosthuizen, 27, British Open; Martin Kaymer, 25, PGA Championship; Charl Schwartzel, 26, Masters. If anyone says they saw that coming, they’re fibbing.

The holders of three of the top five trophies in golf are South Africans: Oosthuizen, Schwartzel and Players champion Tim Clark.

Americans have won but one of the last six majors.

Something tells me those types of trends might continue once Woods and Phil Mickelson get older and lose their edge.

• The bio says the 5-11 Schwartzel weighs 140 pounds. If that’s true, my diet just started.

Pass the salad and fruit.

• When Oosthuizen won the British Open last July, a few European Tour types told me they viewed Louie similarly to other young, talented South Africans with pure swings: Schwartzel and Richard Sterne.

I was led to believe that Schwartzel was more advanced than Oosthuizen, his close pal who also grew up on a farm. That looks like the case now.

• Schwartzel chatter: When Schwartzel got married last fall, his pastor, Hilton Gregg, read the service off an iPhone. But that’s not all the minister was holding.

“He had a brick in one hand and an iPhone in the other,” said Chubby Chandler, Schwartzel’s agent. “He talked about the brick being the foundation of marriage and then threw the brick at Charl. Fortunately it was a fake brick and Charl caught it.”

• Three Golfweek staffers picked Schwartzel to win the week before the Masters. Problem is, we picked him to win the Shell Houston Open, not Augusta.

But then it’s better to be early than late, particularly when dealing with the IRS, loan sharks and many other things besides funerals.

• It’s not too early to look ahead. Bodog.com already has odds for the U.S. Open in June at Congressional. You get the impression the oddsmakers think Woods is back, for he’s the favorite at 6-1, with Mickelson second at 10-1.

You get the impression they don’t think McIlroy is too stunned. He’s co-third favorite at 16-1 with Lee Westwood.

The top of the list features the usual suspects plus a newcomer. Chap named Schwartzel is 33-1.

One man’s early hunch: Luke Donald at 20-1.

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