Cruel Learning Curve


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The $1.312 million question has lingered in the air like an errant tee shot hopelessly caroming for Jones Cabin. How long would it take young Rory McIlroy to recover from his Masters meltdown?

The $1.312 million is the amount of money McIlroy cost himself when he burned through a four-stroke 54-hole lead with a closing nine that added up to 43 and a tie for 15th place. But that total was the least-concerning capital the Northern Irishman burned on Sunday at Augusta National.

Optimistic estimates figured McIlroy would be right as rain by the time his G4 touched down in Asia. The dark crowd estimated considerably longer. As a rule, it’s best to take the “under” when it comes to McIlroy.

If he looked harried and hapless on Sunday at Augusta National, the 21 year old appeared infinitely composed on Tuesday at Quail Hollow, where he will defend his breakthrough PGA Tour title this week.

“I don’t think I was ready,” he reasoned with reason well beyond his youthful exterior. “I displayed a few weaknesses in my game that I need to work on. But I think you’ve got to take the positives.”

For McIlroy, the positive was a third shot at a major in his last three Grand Slam soirees. Some will look at this as a called third strike, others a quality at bat, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

Those who figured The Masters was a miscue that would not easily be digested either have short-term memories or over-active imaginations. This was, after all, the same kid who followed a second-round 80 at last year’s Open Championship with a 69-68 weekend to tie for third.

Similarly, McIlroy rebounded well from the Masters, finishing third at the Malaysian Open following a flight to the far side of planet with, of all people, Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.

Of all the texts and tweets McIlroy received over the last few days it was advice from Greg Norman that resonated. The Shark’s take? “Don’t listen to you guys (media), don’t read golf magazines, don’t pick up papers, don’t watch the Golf Channel,' said McIlroy.

“I’ve taken my own views from what happened a few weeks ago and moved on and that’s the most important thing.”

In the moments before McIlroy teed off on Sunday at Augusta National his manager Chubby Chandler predicted the next 18 holes would be a learning experience. It turned into a crash course, but not a crash.

“He prepared for this by taking three weeks off and that’s unheard of. And then he played 11 rounds in 11 days and I saw the spark in his eye when he got here,” Chandler said at Augusta National.

Taking the long-view with McIlroy has become standard operating procedure for Chandler.

He may act 31 years old on the golf course, but away from the manicured fairways he’s as recklessly youthful as they come. At the Masters he spent his nights at a local mall and throwing the football with some mates. On Monday at Quail Hollow he joined in for a soccer match against a local men’s club team.

If McIlroy is still haunted by his closing 80 at the Masters the memories have been pushed down so far Dr. Phil couldn’t dredge them up with a backhoe.

Asked on Tuesday how long it took to “move on,” McIlroy shrugged: “Couple days maybe. It’s only golf at the end of the day. No one died.”

On Monday McIlroy had his first session with Tour putting guru Dave Stockton Sr., a move he initiated before his Masters meltdown but likely expedited by his final-round fade. To Stockton’s surprise he was far from damaged goods.

“Listening to him talk and his answers, it took him a day or two to move on,” Stockton said.

And why not?

At his age most players are still in college, or taking their lumps in the minor leagues. McIlroy is contending in majors, albeit with a measure of his own high-profile lumps, and shooting final-round 62s, like he did last year at Quail Hollow.

McIlroy’s is a unique education that would crush most others, a cruel learning curve that would send most phenoms to early retirement, or the nearest sports psychologist.

But not McIlroy. If one wanted to know how he was dealing with his Masters misstep they only had to watch him bound into the media center on Tuesday. The hardest, most difficult questions had already been asked and answered.

On Wednesday McIlroy turns 22 and will celebrate in the traditional 22-year-old way, which is to say without fear of consequences. The next day he will begin his first title defense on American soil with the same abandon and it seems without any baggage.

Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard