Masters debacle behind him, McIlroy returns to U.S.

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.

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When last we saw Rory McIlroy on American soil he was triumphant, although you wouldn’t say he was basking in glory.

More like swimming in sympathy.

You don’t get a green jacket for that, but being young in a profession that doesn’t protect you against cruel blows, McIlroy will accept the experience and consider it as a layer of foundation.

After all, “there are three more majors this year and hopefully dozens more that I’ll play in my career,” said McIlroy, who will turn 22 Wednesday.

And if, as so many expect, a few of those future majors end with McIlroy hoisting a big trophy, we’ll perhaps always be able to point to the 2011 Masters as a reason why. Not only for the fact that he played brilliantly for 63 holes and had one hand in the green jacket, but because of the way he handled himself when those final nine holes ruined his week.

Gracious and dignified in the face of a final-round 80 – tying Ken Venturi’s 1956 performance for worst score by a 54 hole leader – McIlroy walked off the 18th hole that blistering warm Sunday and heard massive applause. Then after he provided the media with answers to whatever they wanted to ask, McIlroy heard for many days how he was so respected for doing so.

“I got a lot of text messages and a lot of emails,” McIlroy said Tuesday, while talking to reporters in preparation of his title defense at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C. “I really appreciated that. But I mean, there’s nothing . . . what else was I going to do?”

He is right, of course. It would have looked terribly bad had he been short with reporters, walked away, and acted precocious. Still, it took a lot to stand there that day, given that McIlroy had started the day with a four-stroke lead and even after a shaky outward nine he was one in front standing on the 10th tee. Then he went triple-bogey, bogey, double-bogey and when the mayhem had stopped, McIlroy had crashed all the way into a share of 15th.

“I think it’s easy for people to forget he’s young and (all) the stuff he did, the way he plays golf, it’s been unbelievable,” said Martin Kaymer. “He didn’t play well that last round, but that happens.”

In the days since, McIlroy has thought a lot about that Masters meltdown and he hasn’t run from what he perceives to be a truth that can only make him better.

“I don’t think I was ready,” he said. “I displayed a few weaknesses in my gmae that I need to work on. But I think you’ve got to take the positives.”

McIlroy played the week after the Masters, in Malaysia, and spent some time talking to Charl Schwartzel, who had an Augusta experience at the other end of the spectrum. With a closing 66 – or 14 strokes ahead of McIlroy – Schwartzel won the season’s first major by two.

Getting right back into competition (he had another chance to win, only to get passed by Matteo Manassero and finish third), then taking some time off has whisked McIlroy onto the Quail Hollow stage refreshed and ready. Of course, it helps that he’s buoyed by memories of last year’s Sunday 62 that earned him a stunning victory over the likes of Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, and Rickie Fowler.

“I’m fine,” McIlroy said to yet more questions about his psyche. “I mean, it was a great chance to win a first major, but it’s golf. It’s only golf at the end of the day. I’m very happy with my life, very happy with what’s going on, very happy with my game.”

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