Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 14, 2011

Losing A Tournament, Winning The Day

As sports fans, we celebrate winning. We hail the victors, and cheer for championships and titles. Our heroes set records even as they triumph on the field, court, rink or track. Winning is the straightforward goal of every athletic competition.

But part of the appeal of sport is the extent to which the games we follow can mirror life. While every life hopefully has its times of triumph it also undoubtedly has its moments of defeat, and of despair. So too it is with the sports we love. If one team is crowned a champion at season’s end, tens of others must necessarily be judged to have fallen short. Every new record set in any sport consigns an old one to the dustbin of forgotten history. There can be no winners without their counterparts. Sometimes, we can learn more about one of our heroes when they lose. Sometimes, what we learn about them is worthy of celebrating every bit as much as winning.

Last Sunday, on a steamy hot Georgia afternoon, 21-year old Rory McIlroy lost the Masters. He did not have the season’s first major championship snatched from his grasp by the determined play of another golfer; the young Northern Irishman from County Down lost the tournament he had led from the start, imploding in the final round in spectacularly horrific fashion.

Having led at the end of each of the first three rounds, McIlroy came to Augusta National’s first tee on Sunday afternoon with a four shot lead. While clearly not playing his best, he surrendered but one stroke to par over the front nine even as roars echoed around the golf course for his pursuers. He made the turn still in front, albeit by but a single stroke.

Then he snap-hooked his drive at the 10th into the trees left of the fairway. The ball caromed off the trunk of one of the pines, going even farther left onto a portion of the grounds never before televised by CBS’s cameras. After pitching back to the fairway, he hit another bad hook with his third, the ball ending up behind a large bush well left of the green. Before that ball would find the bottom of the cup, McIlroy would strike it four more times, for a triple-bogey 7. He walked to the 11th tee no longer in the lead.

On the 11th he found the green in regulation, but then three-putted for a bogey 5. On the par-3 12th his tee shot landed safely on the green, just 15 feet left of the hole. It was a clear chance to make birdie and start to right the ship. His first putt ran 3 feet past the cup. His second putt ran a like distance past the hole in the opposite direction. His third putt reprised his first. When his fourth putt fell in for double-bogey, he had played three holes in six over par.

McIlroy teed his ball on the 13th, and no doubt shell-shocked, hit a hard hook into the woods. The ball rattled through the pines and splashed down into Rae’s Creek, just past the hole’s dogleg. On the tee he held his driver like a staff and bent his head over it, fully bowed and bloodied. He had lost the Masters, and he knew it.

Clichés become such because they are accurate. Agonizing to witness yet impossible to turn from, it truly was like watching a train wreck. For television viewers, McIlroy’s role in the Masters ended with the tee shot on #13. But for an obligatory shot of him finishing his round much later, CBS moved on to focus on the many golfers whom McIlroy had plummeted past, and who spent the remainder of the tournament dueling with one another for the lead. That was an understandable decision; after all, we celebrate winning.

But while Rory McIlroy may have disappeared from everyone’s flat screen, on the grounds of Augusta National he played on. He played the final six holes as he had played the first nine, in one over par. He bogeyed the 15th and made par on the rest, including the 13th where his drive had found the creek. He walked off the 18th green having shot 43 on the back nine and 80 for the round; the four-stroke lead on the first tee had turned into a ten shot deficit. At this Masters Rory McIlroy finished tied for 15th.

In the wake of this stunning and so very public collapse, no one would have blamed him if he had gone straight to his car without speaking to reporters. No one would have been surprised if a 21-year old had turned petulant or pouty. But in a display of poise, honesty, and maturity as beautiful as thirty minutes or so of his round were ugly, McIlroy met with the media, took every question and in the process of answering provided a candid self-assessment.

Asked the most obvious question, McIlroy responded, “Well that’s it, isn’t it? What happened?”

“I don’t know,” he added. “I totally unraveled.” He admitted that unlike the first three days, he had not felt comfortable on the tee on Sunday. He acknowledged that he had gotten “too cute” with his fourth shot on the 10th hole as he tried to salvage a bogey. And he conceded that his poor drive on the 13th ended whatever slim chance he had remaining. “I realized at 13 that it was over. That was it. I was trying my hardest but it wasn’t going to happen. Was it?”

He also promised to draw lessons from what was surely an agonizing experience, saying “It shows you what can happen on the last day of a major championship. I’ve never been in this position exactly. You learn. It was a character builder.”

Finally, perhaps mindful that a few analysts would inevitably suggest that such a historic collapse might stunt his promising career, McIlroy even managed to inject some humor into the moment. “You get thrown off balance out there. And I never recovered,” he said. Then he flashed a smile and added, “Well, I haven’t recovered yet.”

One assumes that he will indeed recover. He’s only 21, and overflowing with talent. He’s won on both the European and the PGA Tours. Before leading this year’s Masters for 63 holes, he finished tied for third at the last two majors of 2010, as well as at the 2009 PGA Championship. But for all of that promise and potential, there are no guarantees. If there were, then his remarkable display of grace, candor and good humor in a moment of achingly bitter disappointment would ensure him a dozen majors or more. Rory McIlroy lost the Masters on Sunday, but he won himself a lot of new fans and a ton of respect.

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