Immediately after the round was just too soon to try. It was still too shocking.
McIlroy led the 75th Masters with nine holes to go and all indications were if the 21-year-old could keep his composure, he’d be closing in on greatness.
Then he played the back nine like the weakest of the players lucky enough to be drawn for today’s media round.
His tee shot off the 10th ricocheted off the pines over near the cabins and the wild ride was on. McIlroy went 7-5-5 over the first three holes on the back to fall way behind the shootout that had overtaken him.
He wound up shooting 80 — the same score he had after he shot 63 at St. Andrews last year to take the first round lead in the British Open — and finished tied for 15th, 10 shots behind winner Charl Schwartzel.
“I thought I hung in pretty well the front nine; I was leading the tournament going into the back, and when you have a one-shot lead going into the back nine of the Masters, you can’t be doing that much wrong,” McIlroy said. “I just hit a poor tee shot on 18 and I just sort of unraveled from there. I just sort of list it on 10, 11, 12 and couldn’t really get it back. It’s one of those things.
“I’m very disappointed at the minute and I’m sure I will be for the next few days, but I’ll get over it. ... Hopefully it’ll build a little bit of character in me.”
The thing that made what happened so shocking was the comfort level McIlroy had been at all during the week. He was so at ease, in fact, he thought nothing of throwing a football around with his housemates in the night-time hours after leaving the course.
But his malevolent misadventure only started when his drive landed between the cabins some 150 yards off the tee. He punched back into the fairway, but it landed in what he called a “pretty tricky spot” and then hit his third shot way left of the green. That approach hit a tree and came back to him. He finally reached the putting surface in five and two putted from 18 feet.
He made bogey on 11, then double bogey on 12. On 13, he hit his drive into the creek down the left side, and dropped his head the moment he saw it.
“I sort of realized unless I birdied my way in, I didn’t have a chance,” he said. “I was trying my hardest... but once I hit that tee shot left on 13, I realized that was it.”
McIlroy became only the fourth player to lose a four-shot lead after 54 holes of the Masters, with Greg Norman’s famous collapse in 1996 the most recent. He was bidding to become the fifth player to win wire-to-wire.
Schwartzel had a degree of empathy of what McIlroy went through Sunday afternoon. They’re going to be together this coming week at the Malaysian Open and conversation might be hard to come by.
“What do you say?” Schwartzel said. “Whatever it is, sometimes there’s nothing you can say.
“He’s such a good player. He’s going to win a major sometime. Obviously things didn’t go his way today. The way he played the first three rounds, you have to think that win is not that far away. Golf is a really funny game. One moment you’re on top of it and the next it bites you. He’s such a phenomenal player, he’ll win one.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.