A Fascination With Men Wilting

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - April 20, 2011
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Rory McIlroy grimaces on the 11th hole during the final round of the Masters before putting out for bogey

In golf, frustration is part of the attraction. The sport that was apparently invented by mad Scotsmen to confound the enemy by forcing upon them an addiction that would take their cash and sanity while they helplessly begged for more, is truly an unholy evil. But for all its glorious destruction, even a demolition derby can at times be hard to watch.

That was the case during the Masters. After leading the tournament for 63 holes, 21-year-old Rory McIlroy wilted under the same pressure that has made journeymen legends, turned legends into losers and resulted in more broken clubs and bad language than any other four hours in sports.

McIlroy was trying to become the second youngest person ever to win the Masters, following only Tiger Woods. And as Jason Day said of Woods following the Australian’s final round, that guy’s a freak. So he doesn’t count.

While it was easy to watch with compassionate pain for the young Northern Irishman, very few can understand the pressure he was under. Leading a major through 72 holes is the toughest mental task in sport. The Super Bowl, World Series, even World Cup pale in comparison.

Every participant in a golf tournament is alone. The caddy is there, and in some rare pairings the bag toter can be as much friend as employee - see Tiger and Steve Williams, Phil Mickelson and Jim “Bones” MacKay. But those aren’t the norm. And even the caddies who do have a close relationship with their boss can do little more than watch while the meltdown occurs. Sure, other sports are played as solo events - tennis, boxing, various Olympic sports - but those contests leave little time for thought. Golf provides nothing but time to relive failure.

Quarterbacks are the focus of attention during the Super Bowl and every Stanley Cup loss is largely blamed on the goalie, but each, no matter their skill, toughness or impact, are just one piece of a larger whole. McIlroy has no blockers for protection, no 98 mph heater to bail him out, no big-bodied blue-liner to keep opponents out of his face.

An additional challenge McIlroy faced that is completely foreign to his non-golf colleagues is the constant changing of the field of play. Every football field is the same. The soccer pitch doesn’t change as teams climb the World Cup ladder and the distance between bases throughout the Major Leagues will always be 90 feet. Every day is different at the Masters. Tee and hole positions change, forcing contestants to alter their swing and targets. Wind is also a factor, as is heat, rain and as was seen at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship in February, even hail and snow.

McIlroy is far from being the only talented ball striker to succumb to his own frailties. Jean Vandevelde went from obscurity to infamy after choking away the Open Championship in 1999. PGA Hall of Famer Greg Norman, who spent 331 weeks at No.1, is forever remembered for blowing a six-shot lead on the final day of the 1996 Masters. Both achievements were notable enough to be ranked third and fourth on ESPN’s worst chokes in 2004. They are hardly the only two. There was Mickelson at the 2006 U.S. Open. Just mention Winged Foot and any golf fan will recall his inability to find the fairway on the closing holes. Arnold Palmer, who overcame a seven-stroke deficit to win the 1960 U.S. Open., gave away as many strokes on the back nine to lose the 1966 U.S. Open to Billy Casper.

Golf doesn’t require the physical skills necessary to play in the NBA, NFL or the English Premier League, but it is unparalleled in its requirement for mental strength.

The one who wins is the person who can most often pair the physical skills with mental stability. Do both and you get the green jacket. Do just the mental and you may still edge out enough space to claim victory. Do only the physical and you have no chance.

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