By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- When Rory McIlroy arrived at Augusta National for a practice round last week, he strolled down the middle of the 10th fairway and gave little more than a passing glance to Peek and Berckman Cabins.
"Hopefully, I'll do the same thing this week," McIlroy said on Tuesday.
A year ago, McIlroy endured his darkest professional day there when, leading by a stroke in the final round, he pulled his tee shot so far left it landed next to the two buildings.
He triple-bogeyed the hole on his way to shooting 80 and suffered one of the worst final-round collapses in Masters history.
On the phone with his mom Rosie the next morning, McIlroy couldn't hold the tears back any longer.
"It was the first time that I had cried in a long time about anything," McIlroy said. "I sort of let it all out, and I definitely felt better after it."
He played better, too.
Two months later McIlroy won the U.S. Open in record fashion for his first career major championship.
"It sort of proved to myself more than anything else that I was able to win at the very highest level," McIlroy said. "It gave me great confidence in myself that if things did go wrong, I knew how to fix them and I knew how to go forward."
Which is exactly what he has done since last year's Masters.
McIlroy has won twice more since his seminal victory at Congressional, including at last month's Honda Classic, and he hasn't finished outside the top 5 in five starts this season. He also briefly reached No. 1 in the world for the first time earlier this year.
Part of the reason McIlroy has enjoyed such success the last 12 months is a vastly improved short game. He worked with Dave Stockton on his putting and this season ranks 67th in strokes gained-putting -- up from 130th a year ago.
"If your short game is in good shape coming in here, you can be a lot more aggressive with your iron shots," McIlroy said.
He also learned plenty since his last visit to Augusta National.
McIlroy admitted that last year he tried to be someone he wasn't and that he wasn't ready to win a major championship.
"I was always looking at the ground; I was very insular," McIlroy said. "My shoulders were a little bit [hunched over], sort of like I didn't want the outside world to get in instead of embracing the situation. ... It was such a blur."
One of the many people to reach out to McIlroy in the days that followed was Greg Norman.
Perhaps no one could understand what McIlroy was going through more than Norman, who has endured his share of major heartbreaks, including a final-round 78 to blow a six-shot lead in the 1996 Masters.
After McIlroy arrived in Malaysia for his next tournament, Norman called him in his hotel room.
"He said a couple things to me that I found very useful and sort of put into practice," McIlroy said. "There's so much hype and there's so much buildup, you just try to 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."
Still, McIlroy will be forever linked to that tee shot on the 10th hole at Augusta -- known as Camellia, which is a type of evergreen tree with leaves that are simple, thick, serrated and usually glossy with flowers that vary from white through pink to red.
"I played here last week, and I did ask my caddie where exactly was Rory," Luke Donald said. "He goes, 'There isn't a single person that doesn't go by here and asks where Rory's ball was.'"
Even McIlroy couldn't help himself in his first visit since that fateful day.
"I can't believe how close the cabins are, they are only 50 yards off the tee," he joked. "Obviously there are memories that come back and memories that you probably don't want. It's fine. I got that all out of the way and am just looking forward to this week and looking forward to trying to put myself in contention to try and win this thing."
- Rory McIlroy
- Augusta National