Busting on 21 — and winning

Golf is not a sport that tolerates poor on-course behavior as a general rule. Even as Tiger Woods began his latest revitalization with a fourth-place finish at the Masters, new reports of him spitting on the course have him under the microscope for the wrong reasons again.

But with what happened to Rory McIlroy on the back nine Sunday at Augusta, I’m sure he would have been allowed a hat toss, broken club or some choice words uttered at the golfing gods or himself.

When McIlroy knocked his tee shot on No. 13 into a creek, he knew his shot to win was finally over and quietly let it show.

Holding a one-shot lead heading to No. 10 after spending the tournament at the top of the leaderboard — including a four-shot lead to start the day — the 21-year-old McIlroy proceeded to shoot plus-seven over the final nine holes to go from perhaps imagining Phil Mickelson slipping the jacket onto him to just wishing for it to be over before it got any worse.

A triple bogey at 10 after his drive hit a tree — the first of two McIlroy shots on the hole to hit a tree — and wound up between cabins far from the fairway. A three-putt bogey on 11; a four-putt double bogey on 12. Suddenly he went from being in control to needing a miracle and almost perfect play just to stay in contention.

His next shot was a drive that ensured  his demise was complete. By then, the tournament had gotten so interesting for so many other golfers that on the television broadcast his cut-ins were more purely for information than for gawkery. Yes, McIlroy’s still out of it. Now here are seven or eight other golfers who aren’t.

Being in the final group, he finished up his final round of 80 with all eyes back on him, and then came what he had to have been dreading most — the post-match greenside interview. What would he say? How would he react? He had shown emotion, reacted to shots by burying his face in his arm, and in many ways held it together through the end of the round.

But now it was over, he’d signed the odious scorecard, and all there was left to do was reflect on one of the biggest meltdowns in sports in front of a live national audience of about 10 million viewers.

What happened next was perhaps the ultimate irony, one which could signify that there were indeed lessons to be learned from this disaster. Sure, McIlroy had had something similar happen in last year’s British Open with an 80 after an opening-round 63. But that was the second round. This was the final round, the final nine holes of a major.

Despite having just had one of the most embarrassing moments of his brief career on one of the biggest stages, McIlroy handled the aftermath in a way which seems to indicate that hell be back … and on the right side of things.

And just as he had fallen apart on the course, he kept his composure off of it. He handled the questions like a veteran, answered them with wisdom beyond his years and insisted he’d learn from this and get better, be more prepared the next time he was in that situation.

That’s exactly why he very likely will be in that situation again, and I for one hope so. I remember hearing people around the office talking about his early Augusta rounds and how unimpressed they were with what they considered an almost cocky demeanor. I hadn’t noticed it myself, but he basically had to be anything but cocky after he came off the course Sunday.

He drew an ovation from those fans on the veranda at the clubhouse as he returned, people appreciating the poise he’d shown in closing out the round and conducting himself after that he hadn’t been able to translate to his golf game during the day. It was well-earned all around, and what earned it could eventually earn him a winner’s ovation down the road.

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