Rory McIlroy walks off the 18th green after shooting an 80 during the final… (Shaun Best / Reuters )
From Augusta, Ga. — His shirt was stained in the front, untucked in the back, a little boy lost.
Rory McIlroy trudged up the final holes at Augusta National on Sunday afternoon as if looking for somewhere to cry. His swagger had shriveled into a stoop. His boyish smile became gnawed lips.
Some fans who had been waiting for him for 10 hours packed up their chairs, turned their backs and walked away before he arrived. As for those who remained to cheer a kid in the throes of a man-sized Masters collapse, he couldn't even look them in the eye.
"I don't know if people were feeling sorry for me or what," McIlroy said.
This is what happens here. For all of the Masters' beauty, this is its beast. For all the roars that bounced through the pines here Sunday, none was as compelling as the cry of a 21-year-old innocent who was swallowed by them.
What does it look like? What does it always look like?
How about: McIlroy began the day with a four-stroke lead and wound up 10 strokes behind winner Charl Schwartzel.
"I just unraveled," he said.
Or how about: McIlroy was leading the tournament by one stroke with nine holes remaining and, over the next three holes, hit a ball into a row of cabins, hit a ball into the trees, and required four putts to leave a green.
"I sort of lost my speed on the greens, I lost my line … I lost everything," he said.
Then there was this: McIlroy's 80 tied the worst final-round score by a 54-hole leader in the tournament's 75-year history.
"This is going to be hard to take for a few days," he said.
It was so bad, that plaintive cry occurred six holes before the tournament was over, after another heinous tee shot on No. 13, McIlroy burying his face in his arms as he stood for long helpless moments on the tee box.
"I realized I didn't have a chance," he said, thus becoming perhaps the first final-day leader in Masters history to consign himself to hell while still in Amen Corner.
This is what happens here. This is what it is like when you are the young and hunted on a Sunday in Augusta. You lead the entire tournament, you are the hottest thing in a knit shirt and big belt, you tell your swing coach to stay in Florida, you're fine that your parents are watching from your hometown Hollywood Golf Club in Northern Ireland, you are good enough and strong enough to get this done …
And then you walk down the first fairway, and you have never felt more alone.
"I was confident, I was playing really well, maybe I was a little …" McIlroy said.
A little … unprepared? A little … guy who had no idea what it feels like when you step into the woods and are immediately chased by a Tiger?
The thrilling Sunday charge by Tiger Woods might have temporarily captured the nation's attention, but, more important, it cracked kid's composure. He played his front nine amid seemingly constant cheers coming from four holes ahead, and he couldn't seem to get them out of his mind or his stroke.
On the first hole, instead of playing it safe from above the green, McIlroy attempted a putt directly at the hole, ran it far past and settled for bogey. On his second hole, he tried to aggressively escape a sand trap and knocked the ball off the top of the trap.
By the fifth hole, when he jerked an easy par putt for his second bogey in about an hour, his arms seemed stiff, his swing seemed stilted and the noise just kept building.
"I tried not to look at the leaderboard, but when you hear the roars, you know what's going on," McIlroy said.
On the 10th hole, it finally began falling completely apart, as he drove his tee shot so far left, it landed between two of the club's signature white cabins, sitting in a spot between ceiling fans and Cape Cod shutters, in such a weird spot that he asked his caddie whether it was out of bounds.
"I had just never seen anybody hit it there before," he said.
It was beginning of the end, a three-hole mess of bad decisions and worse putts, leaving behind a smoldering wreckage that eventually landed him in a tie for 15th place while sending many of his fans running after Woods.
By the way, anybody think things would have been different if Woods did not lip that eagle putt on No. 15? Could that have been the most important shot in the tournament? Woods shot a 67 and finished four strokes back, but if he makes that putt, doesn't he turn the entire leaderboard into a bunch of manic McIlroys?
Woods — who is winless in 20 tournaments since his personal crisis 17 months ago — would have to settle for spooking the leader.
"This golf course can bait you into being too aggressive," Woods said. "That's what happened to Rory out there."
It was not the biggest collapse in Masters or major history. It was not Ed Sneed bogeying the final three holes to blow a three-stroke lead here in 1979, or Greg Norman blowing a six-shot lead here in 1996, and definitely not Jean Van de Velde blowing a three-shot lead on the last hole of the 1999 British Open.
It was not the worst. It just looked like it. But give McIlroy credit for making the best of it.
He honorably addressed his failure not only behind the scorer's hut immediately after his round, but also in the locker room later, answering the sort of tough questions that many veteran pro athletes would never touch.
"I just need more experience hanging in there and grinding it out," McIlroy admitted, shaking his head, placing a stack of unopened fan mail into a plastic Masters bag and heading for the club exit.
At the same time, Masters officials were holding the annual outdoor ceremony to place the green jacket on the new champion. You were hoping McIlroy didn't hear it. You were certain he did.