Rory McIlroy believes that his heartbreaking Masters “meltdown” could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.
The world No 3 bounced back from blowing a four-shot final round lead at Augusta to win the US Open by an incredible eight-stroke margin just 70 days later. But he’s convinced that he might never had managed to recover so quickly had he not taken control of his destiny and come out of denial about his putting.
Reflecting on the fateful final day collapse that changed his life forever, McIlroy said: “If I look back on my career in 20 years, it’s very possible that that day in Augusta was probably the defining moment in my career.
“It was definitely the point where I reached the crossroads in my career where I could keep going the wrong way or really take responsibility for myself and say, ‘right, this is what I’ve got to do to get better and win, and improve as a player’.
“The Masters was huge for me. It was a huge disappointment at the time but reflecting on it, looking back on it, it was probably the most important day of my career so far.”
The 22-year old Ulsterman confessed that losing out on the chance to become the first Irishman to don the green jacket forced him to take a long, hard look at himself.
Reflecting on the series of disasters that cost him the title, he said: “If that hadn’t happened and if I’d coasted and won the Masters, I’d never have learned the things I did learn about myself that day.”
He even concedes that his public humiliation may have played a part in his ditching of manager Chubby Chandler for Dublin based Horizon and a move to make more decisions for himself.
He said: “It might have set the wheels in motion in some way. I was getting advice from left, right and centre after the Masters. From people I was close to and from people that just wanted to offer some sort of help.
“I really had to filter everything through and try and make decisions myself. Sometimes I felt I let people make decisions for me instead of taking my career into my own hands and deciding this is what I want to do, this is where I want to go. That day at the Masters helped me do that.
“I think the biggest thing was listening to myself. You can take so much advice from so many different people. Actually listening to your own (inner voice). I said after the Masters I was very honest with myself and I needed to do some things with my golf game.
“I always felt I was a decent putter and I got by. Okay, some days it didn’t quite go the way I wanted it to but sometimes I was nearly a bit in denial about it, rather than saying there is a bit of a problem here and I do need to fix it. I do need to make it better. It’s just being very honest with yourself in that way.
“Again, even things like ‘I’m going to play in this tournament or I don’t want to play in that tournament’ … just doing things for yourself a little bit. I even said afterwards it was about being a bit more cocky, more selfish or assertive or whatever you want to call it.
“Making decisions for myself and really putting my golf and my career first. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Improving his putting and sticking by his under-fire caddie JP Fitzgerald - severely criticised for his passive attitude at Augusta - turned out to be key.
He said: “I always felt I was a decent putter and I got by. Okay, some days it didn’t quite go the way I wanted it to but sometimes I was nearly a bit in denial about it, rather than saying there is a bit of a problem here and I do need to fix it. I do need to make it better.”
As for Fitzgerald, his job was never in jeopardy, according to McIlroy.
“You’ve got to understand that it has been a learning process for the both of us,” McIlroy explained. “There’s no point in saying JP didn’t do a great job there, I’m going to get someone else. JP’s been on my bag since the middle of 2008, when I was 200th in the world and he’s helped bring me to where I am now, second in the world until last week and third now.
“Here’s a guy who has been with me for all five of my wins on Tour. He’s been with me through some tough playoff losses. He’s been with me through everything. It’s the same with the situation with my coach – if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
“I’ve a great relationship with JP. He’s become one of my closest friends over the past two and a half years and it’s a combination that works very well.”
McIlroy went on to destroy the field in the US Open at Congressional and move as high as world No 2 recently, winning twice at the end of the season and pushing Luke Donald the way in the Race to Dubai.
Now he can’t wait to get back to Augusta next April and prove to himself that he has what it takes to win a green jacket - with Fitzgerald by his side.
“I can’t wait. Everything I do in the New Year up until April will be geared toward the Masters. I’m going to do the exact same preparation this year leading up to it. I can’t wait to get back. I obviously know my way around the golf course and I feel like I’m going back there with a point to prove to myself. I’d love to get into contention again.”
Many ghosts lurk around Amen Corner but McIlroy believes that Congressional will help him deal with whatever Augusta can throw at him next spring. But won’t he bit just a little apprehensive?
“No, I’ll be excited because I know what happened this year definitely won’t happen again. I know what to do now in those situations. I know what way my mind works, how to relax myself and focus myself. It would be great if I was able to go back there and have a chance to win.
“t’s funny, walking the whole way up that 10th hole, it’s like I was in a daze. It’s like I just got dizzy – I suppose it’s almost like what a boxer feels when he takes a punch in a title fight. I just wasn’t thinking straight. Then you look back at it and you wonder ‘how could I have let myself get that much out of control’.”
He forced himself to watch the DVD when he got home to Ireland, via Malaysia.
“Yeah. To be honest, I didn’t think I could bear watching it but I made myself look back at it again. Even the body language walking to the first tee – looking at my shoes instead of having my head up and chest out. I was very insular and I always made sure at the US Open, especially in the final round, that my eye level was always above the crowd. Always made sure that I looked up. Even subconsciously, giving yourself that good body language affects the way you feel in yourself.
“I played Malaysia the week straight after so I didn’t really have a chance to watch it. After that I was home for two weeks and that’s when I watched it back and did most of the analysis of what I needed to do better.”
It’s been claimed that his t appearance alongside Masters champion Charl Schwartzel in the following week’s Malaysian Open played a major role in his acceptance of the Augusta disappointment. But McIlroy doesn’t agree.
“The only thing that really came from Malaysia was the phone call I had from Greg Norman on the Tuesday night. Coming from someone that had been in that position – he was leading and shot 78 even though Faldo played great and shot 67 to win, he sort of felt (he’d let it go), especially since Greg Norman had a few chances to win the Masters.”
McIlroy’s win at Congressional finally laid the ghosts of Augusta to rest.
“Defintely. It needed something like that to completely put it to bed. I got myself in a great position but I think the really big day for me this year was Saturday at the US Open because I went out with a six shot lead and there was still 36 holes to go and a lot could happen. So turning that six shot lead into an eight shot lead was a big day for me.”
The rest of the season was largely a triumphal march and it’s no wonder McIlroy is gunning to get back out on tour again.
I”t’s been a year of discovery. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned a lot about life in general and it’s been a great year – fantastic on the golf course, I’ve won my first Major and two more tournaments. Everything I feel off the golf course is fantastic.
“I obviously feel I’m in a very exciting place. I’m very excited about my golf game and what the future holds. I’ve only had a week off but I’m already looking forward to getting stuck back into it next year.”