Tough day for McIlroy

Well, something happened to Rory McIlroy on his way to what appeared to be his coronation as golf’s next great young player.

That’s not said with even a hint of sarcasm. It’s just an awful lot for anyone, whether he’s 21, 31 or 41, to carry the lead at the Masters for a sustained period of time, much less 63 holes, and not feel the pressure.

And for all his maturity that would make one thing he’s older than 21, McIlroy surely felt the pressure on Sunday. He felt it for Europe, which still hasn’t had a Masters champion since 1999. He wanted to make history, as the second-youngest player, behind Tiger Woods, to win the green jacket. And he wanted to do it for his friend, Graeme McDowell, and give Northern Ireland two major champions.

You knew it would be a struggle for McIlroy right from the get-go at Augusta National Golf Club.

The phenom, who started Sunday with a four-stroke lead, bogeyed the first hole after blasting his drive long and straight down the middle. He missed some shots that he had made look easy during the first three days, but he still made the turn leading by one.

Then it all came apart for McIlroy, a run of bad golf that was shocking in its suddenness and generated memories of Greg Norman’s collapse to Nick Faldo in 1996.

He pulled a drive so badly on the downhill 10th hole that the ball hit a tree and ricocheted over to a spot between two guest cabins at the club. He punched out of the trees, then hit a shot back in the trees, and wound up scoring a triple bogey 7 on the hole.

Then the putting followed. McIlroy hit a nice shot to 12 feet at the 11th and 3-putted for bogey. A 4-putt (!) followed at the par-3 12th. Even though he hit some solid shots on the last four holes, he couldn’t make anything on the greens.

By the time he missed another short putt and made par at No. 18, he had taken 80 strokes. Playing partner Angel Cabrera spent almost a minute seemingly trying to come up with the right words to comfort McIlroy. You really felt badly for the guy.

Masters champion Charl Schwartzel said it best: “Golf is a funny game.”

You almost always see it in the majors. A player is just dominant for two or three days and then loses control in the final round. It’s happened to Norman and Lee Westwood. It used to happen to Phil Mickelson, who’s won four majors, and Sergio Garcia, who hasn’t won any.

McIlroy will be back. He’s going to win a lot of tournaments. He will win a major, more likely two or three. At 21, he has all the tools.

But McIlroy’s collapse on Sunday has proven once again that no one gets the better of golf. Just when you think you have it figured out, it takes a bite out of you.

That’s why people love it so much.

--Joe Juliano