AUGUSTA, Ga. – For such a young man, Rory McIlroy owns some powerful perspective. It’s what allowed him to rebound from last year’s torturous Masters calamity to win the U.S. Open two months later; it’s what allows him to return to Augusta National Golf Club this week without being haunted by demons.
“It wasn't the end of the world,” he says of letting a back-nine lead on Sunday slide into a T-15 result. “It's only golf. It's not like anyone died out there.”
Actually, it is. In a way.
No, sliding one arm into a sleeve of the green jacket only to have it ripped away certainly isn’t as grave nor somber a situation as death – not even close – but in coping with the loss, McIlroy in effect demonstrated the same five-step grieving process as someone overcome by personal tragedy.
Step 1: Denial and Isolation
According to bereavement research, the first reaction to dealing with loss is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions.
It was only natural for McIlroy to deny that his opportunity to win a first major championship title was quickly slipping away. Even as he was in the process of posting a triple-bogey on the 10th hole, it was difficult to believe that he wasn’t still the leading contender.
Then again, there may be no place more isolated for a Masters leader than the cabins to the left of No. 10; a place so isolated, in fact, that longtime observers can’t recall a competitor ever hitting his drive that far left.
“I can't believe how close the cabins are,” he says now with a laugh. “They are only 50 yards off the tee.”
Step 2: Anger
For most professional golfers in the same situation as McIlroy, the anger associated with losing such a vaunted title could last weeks or months or years or even an entire lifetime.
For him, it lasted no more than four holes.
“I knew my chance to win the tournament was over by the 13th,” he maintains. “I had five holes where I just sort of played and thought about it and, you know, could almost reflect on what happened straightaway.”
You can doubt McIlroy’s anger dissipated so quickly, but review the video now and you’ll see that when he walked off the final green as part of the final pairing, he can be seen not only talking with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald, but laughing.
Step 3: Bargaining
Feelings of helplessness and vulnerability are often accompanied by a need to regain control.
There’s no doubt that in the days following his loss, McIlroy endured several “what if” scenarios. What if he didn’t pull that drive on No. 10? What if instead of having his ball carom way left, it kicked back right toward the fairway? What if he had been able to salvage bogey instead of triple?
In order to help him cope, Rory did what nearly any grieving young person would do. He called his mom.
“It was the first time that I had cried in a long time about anything,” he recalls. “And yeah, I suppose I sort of let it all out that morning and I definitely felt better after it.”
Step 4: Depression
He had already committed to a European Tour event in Malaysia the week after the Masters, and Rory figured that competing far away from Augusta would help put the defeat out of mind for a little while.
Of course, staying in a hotel room in a foreign land leaves a man alone with only his thoughts. McIlroy was still thinking about what had taken place when he received a phone call of encouragement that he says resonated more than any other.
“The one from Greg Norman that I got a couple days after,” he reveals. “I was in Malaysia in my hotel room and, you know, he just gave me a call and he talked to me about it. I think it was great coming from him, because he had sort of been in the same position.
“I'm sure he knew how I felt. And he said a couple things to me that I found very useful and sort of put into practice, especially weeks like this where there's so much hype and there's so much buildup just to try and create this little bubble around yourself and just try and get into that and sort of don't let any of the outside interference come into that.
“That was big for me. It was just great to get the phone call from him, because I think he knew more than anyone else how I was feeling at that point.”
Step 5: Acceptance
Coming to grips with a loss is never easy. Coming to grips with losing the Masters is made eminently easier when it is soon followed by winning the U.S. Open.
McIlroy’s acceptance of his failure to claim the green jacket was undoubtedly soothed by his convincing eight-stroke victory at Congressional Country Club two months later, but a year after the fact he sounds like a different player, even a different person than the one who failed to win here.
“I learned a lot,” he says of the experience. “I think one of the things I learned was that as a person and as a golfer, I wasn't ready to win the Masters, wasn't ready to win a major. … It was a huge learning curve, learning experience and, you know, I took a lot from it and was able to put some of the things I learned into practice very quickly, and that's what resulted in winning the U.S. Open a couple months after.”
McIlroy has likely never viewed his grieving process as a psychological five-step method, but review his advancements from last year’s final round at the Masters until today and you’ll find someone who has dealt with the loss in much the same way as someone coping with tragedy.
With that experience now behind him, though never forgotten, don’t be surprised to see McIlroy once again vault himself into a scenario in which he has a chance to win the Masters. Don’t be surprised, either, if the result is much different this time around.