McIlroy faces test of character
Rory McIlroy untucked his shirt, tucked it back in again and, continuing to fidget, seemed unsure what to do next. His complexion was ashen and sweat poured from his brow as he prepared to tee off in the final group at a major for the first time in his young career.
On the range, the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland had laughed and joked with caddie JP Fitzgerald as he dispatched ball after ball with crisp accuracy.
But McIlroy was not ready to win a major. His nervous demeanour on that first tee was telling. The confidence of the first three days was no longer coursing through his veins.
When it came for his turn to tee off, he stepped forward and unleashed a massive drive that showed just how much adrenalin was pumping around his slim frame.
He wasn't even sure where it ended up. "Is it in the fairway?" he asked Fitzgerald. The caddie gave a quiet nod and, after playing partner Angel Cabrera had driven, McIlroy marched at pace in pursuit of his distant ball.
At the time, having stood feet from where all this happened, I was convinced that, now he was off and running, the apparent nervousness would be replaced by a sense of destiny and a confidence that he could continue his domination and get the job done.
Wrong. McIlroy's quickened step was, in fact, evidence that he was in the wrong place mentally. "He did everything more quickly than before in that final round," commented former PGA Tour player Andrew Magee in our coverage on BBC Radio 5 live. "He walked quicker and swung quicker. In the end, that leads to uncontrollable hooks."
McIlroy finds himself deep in trouble on the 10th. Photo: Reuters
Magee was referring to McIlroy's destructive tee shot at the 10th in particular, a shot that ended up amid Augusta's cabins way down the left side of the hole.
McIlroy had already endured a shaky front nine.
Three putts from just off the back of the first green was a worrying sign, coming moments after eventual champion Charl Schwartzel had chipped in for an opening birdie.
The South African then holed from the fairway for an eagle two on the third to wipe out McIlroy's overnight advantage, leaving the leader of the first three rounds under immense pressure.
Even so, a steadying birdie on the seventh meant that McIlroy went to the turn with a one-stroke lead. Then came the capitulation at the 10th, where he failed to realise that there was no need to panic after that fateful pull/hook off the tee.
This lack of clear thinking showed us that McIlroy is not yet ready to win a major. He immediately tried to push and was no longer prepared to play the percentages.
His second shot to the 11th set up a birdie chance, although 5 live pundit Jay Townsend was convinced the youngster had got lucky.
Once that birdie chance was missed, McIlroy might as well have been trying to putt with an umbrella. He missed the return and then miserably four-putted the 12th.
It was truly horrible to watch - but in the long run how ruinous?
McIlroy raises a smile as he walks off the 18th green with his caddie. Photo: Reuters
McIlroy is a fine golfer with the potential for greatness - those two facts remain intact despite his Masters disappointment.
Yes, this was the biggest major capitulation since Jean Van de Velde blew his five-stroke lead in the 1999 Open at Carnoustie but this was the first of surely many opportunities for McIlroy to land one of the game's biggest titles.
He is a man of fortitude and will need to be as he seeks to recover from this setback. He has the game and seems to have the capacity to learn from his errors.
We all have our own theories why it went wrong at Augusta but only he knows. He must not chastise himself for messing up but seek to grow stronger for the experience.
Easier said than done but this was only his 10th major appearance. With hindsight, the victory so many anticipated was too much to expect from someone who has won only two Tour titles to date.
What McIlroy must do is learn the art of winning at Tour level in the way that Schwartzel has done. The South African already has six wins to his name.
Interestingly, Schwartzel is a young winner of a Green Jacket at 26. Yet he is still five years older than McIlroy.
If he doesn't, it could ultimately lead to the squandering of what remains a massive talent with boundless potential.