Rory aims to be Tiger but could be Shark
Rory McIlroy grew up wanting to become the next Tiger Woods.
But what the precocious young Irishman does this week at the year’s first major, the Masters, will go a long way to revealing whether he’s to be the next Tiger, or the next Shark.
As in Greg Norman, who, as McIlroy infamously did last April, imploded with the coveted green jacket beckoning and never really recovered.
McIlroy took a four-shot lead into the final round of last year’s Masters and folded under the pressure, carding an 80, the highest Sunday score by a third-round leader in the tournament’s long history.
Only two men — one of them, not surprisingly, Norman — have blown bigger leads at Augusta National with just 18 holes to play.
McIlroy’s narrative isn’t dissimilar to Norman’s in 1986, the year of the so-called Saturday Slam, when the swashbuckling Aussie held the third-round lead at all four majors.
Ironically, Norman’s Masters run in ‘86 came undone at the 10th, where he made double-bogey.
McIlroy infamously pull hooked his tee shot off the 10th last year into cabins on the property that have never come into play before.
He finished with a triple-bogey, three-putted the next for bogey, four-putted the 12th and, by the time he’d unleashed another pull hook off the 13th, the young man’s anguish was so obvious you wanted to throw a towel around him and get him out of there.
He couldn’t take another punch.
Unlike McIlroy, Norman clawed his way back into the ‘86 Masters and after making birdie on the penultimate hole, could’ve forced a playoff with a simple par or, of course, won with a birdie.
But from the middle of the fairway, he flared his approach and made bogey, handing a 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus his last and most improbable major.
Those who’d resist the comparison to Norman would point out that McIlroy last year bounced back from the disappointment of the Masters by smashing records on his way to an eight-shot victory at the US Open; a victory that had the savants crowning him as the successor to Woods.
But remember that Norman also rebounded from his Augusta nightmare to win his first major, romping to a five-stroke victory in the British Open at Turnberry.
What happened at the next Masters, however, sealed the Shark’s fate.
In 1987, Norman shot a final round 72 — a score he should’ve bettered — to get into a three-way playoff.
After Seve Ballesteros was eliminated on the first hole, and with the unheralded local Larry Mize in trouble on the second, it seemed like Norman would get the green jacket that he’d deserved.
But life can be cruel and Mize — staring down the barrel of a bogey — did the unthinkable, holing a 45-yard chip for birdie. A shell-shocked Norman left his putt to extend the playoff short.
He’d go on to win another major, the 1994 British Open, but the truth is that Norman was never the same after failing to win those two Masters.
He‘d convinced himself that he was in some way jinxed, so much so that by the time Nick Faldo and 1996 rolled around, I’m sure a part of Norman sensed that his belated coronation would instead become a crucifixion.
I once asked Steve Williams, who caddied for both Norman and Woods, which of them, at their peak, was better.
He couldn’t separate them, as talents, but said that the difference between them was that Woods was mentally strong while Norman “let things bother him”.
“We’d be walking down a fairway and Greg would talk about a bad break he’d gotten on that hole years before,” Williams said.
“He never forgot any of it and he never would let it go.”
And so the burning question this week becomes: can McIlroy let it go? Can he step on the 10th tee at Augusta National on Thursday and forget those cabins deep in the left woods?
“I hope that he hits as many shots off that tee in practice as possible and gets it out of the way,” said Colin Montgomerie.
“That’s the shot everybody will be focusing on come Thursday, and let’s hope he gets rid of that. It was just a poor shot at the wrong time. He’s a much more mature player than he was a year ago.”
Certainly, McIlroy — who sought the counsel of putting guru Dave Stockton to fix the glaring weakness in his game, short putts — seems more mature, and his results have reflected that with three wins and eight top-10 finishes in his last 11 starts.
And not to forget his gutsy triumph at the Honda Classic — holding off Woods’ Sunday 62 — that at the time elevated McIlroy to world No. 1.
It’s also instructive that McIlroy doesn’t shy away from talking about last year’s Masters disaster.
“It was definitely a defining moment. It could have been the crossroads of my career,” he said.
“I could have did what I did on Sunday at Augusta and let it affect me and let it get to me, and maybe gone into a slump or feel down or feel sorry for myself.
“But you know, I had enough good people around me not to let that happen and I was able to go down the right path and do the right things to put everything right and win the next major.”
And he’s retained a sense of humor about it all.
“Hopefully, this year, I won’t see those cabins quite so close up,” he said.
“I don’t look at it as revenge, really. It would just be great to put myself in a position to win again and if I can do that, it will be great to see if I can handle things a little bit better.
“Everyone makes mistakes, so it’s all about taking what you can out of them.
“There is no point in dwelling on the past because you can’t change that. You can definitely change what happens in the future.”
Ironically, one of the first people to reach out to McIlroy last April was Norman.
“He told me something I put into practice at the U.S. Open, actually,” said McIlroy.
“He told me not to watch any TV during the weeks of tournaments, to not read any newspapers or magazines. He basically told me to wrap myself in my own little bubble.
“And he said if there’s ever anything I need or wanted help with, that he’s always just a phone call away.”
He could certainly tell McIlroy a cautionary tale.