Rory McIlroy stands on the 10th tee, some of the highest ground at Augusta National, surveying the regal golf course that, until now, he has conquered. It is Sunday. He leads the Masters by a shot. He is about to play the famous back nine for the cheers he has dreamed about since he was a seven-year-old boy growing up in Northern Ireland.
Now he will find out, beyond the childhood dreams, if he's good enough.
Shot 1: McIlroy snap-hooks his drive left. The ball ricochets off a tree and rolls to a spot between the Peek and Berckman cabins, about 100 yards left of the fairway. "Is it out-of-bounds?" he asks. No one at Augusta, not even the most grizzled observer, can recall any golf ball rolling there.
Few people remember how a nightmare starts. People usually pick up the nightmare already in progress, as in: "I don't know how I ended up in a volcano with the guys from Milli Vanilli." McIlroy knows exactly how his nightmare begins: with a shot so far left that CBS does not have a camera anywhere close—the shaky, blurry video of him standing between the cabins looks like film out of another era.
To this point, the golf ball had been obeying McIlroy's command. He led at the end of each of the first three days and entered Sunday with a four-shot lead, an advantage held by only 12 golfers in Masters history. Nine of them had won the tournament. The three who lost their leads—Ken Venturi (1956, led by four, lost to Jack Burke Jr.); Ed Sneed (1979, led by five, lost to Fuzzy Zoeller); and Greg Norman (1996, led by six, lost to Greg Norm ... uhh, Nick Faldo)—are remembered only for the agony.
Shot 2: After considerable effort McIlroy finds a small opening and pitches the ball into the fairway. He is still about 250 yards from the green.
The questions came at him in a barrage all weekend: How will you handle the pressure? How will you overcome your youth? How will you feel on Sunday? You are only 21, how will you hold up?
"I feel comfortable," he kept saying. He looked comfortable. He threw a football with friends in front of the house he had rented for the week (even getting yelled at by a neighbor). He practiced without a swing coach. He slept well. He seemed prepared for the moment.
"I think I'm a fast learner," he said after his first-round 65.
Shot 3: McIlroy is thinking about a bogey. If he can just get a 5, he will still be tied for the lead. He pulls his metal wood into the trees, and the ball rolls down into a valley, well left of the green.
The crowd aches for him. People don't watch golf just to be amazed. They watch to connect ... to feel what the golfer feels. Haven't we all had a moment? Haven't we all felt the world spinning away from us? Haven't we all hit golf balls into the trees?
Shot 4: McIlroy tries a delicate chip shot. The ball conks against a tree and settles closer to the hole, but still to the left of the green.
Roars rattle the Georgia pines of Augusta throughout the day. Each of those roars represent something wonderful—a dropped putt, a brilliant approach shot, a chip hitting the flagstick. Nobody can remember a day so full of roars. Eight different golfers had a share of the lead. Tiger Woods shoots 31 on the front to erase a seven-shot deficit. Eventual winner Charl Schwartzel chips in from 120 feet and holes out from the fairway, 114 yards away, a miraculous double.
But where are the roars for Rory McIlroy? The ones he dreamed about?
Shot 5: McIlroy chips—this time less delicately. The ball reaches the green. It is 30 feet from the cup.
A professional golfer cannot hide. This is both the beauty and cruelty of the game. There is no locker room to duck into at halftime, no huddle in which a coach offers encouragement or a solution. There is only the next shot and the waiting scorecard and the bitter emptiness of a golf cup, 4¼ inches in diameter.
Shots 6 and 7: A double bogey now would feel like a victory ... but McIlroy does not make the putt. The ball slides past the cup. He knocks in the three-foot comebacker for triple bogey.
McIlroy is still only two strokes off the lead, but it is clear that he will not win the Masters. Sure, he tries to convince himself otherwise. If I can birdie the 11th hole ... but he misses the seven-foot putt and the minuscule par putt too. Well, then, if I can birdie number 12 ... but he misses birdie, par and bogey putts, a dreaded four-putt. "I lost my speed," he would say. On the 13th he snap-hooks his drive into the water. He drops his head to his chest.
When he finishes the round with an 80—dropping him to 15th—McIlroy hands his ball to a young fan. He hugs friends. He answers every question with dignity. "I thought ... I thought I'd be O.K.," he says, trying to find words that are not there. He had his moment. He wasn't up to it. What words sum that up? He wanders under the oak tree in front of the clubhouse. All around him are cheers.
"They feel sorry for me, I guess," Rory McIlroy says. The cheers sound nothing like they did in his boyhood dreams.
To listen to Joe Posnanski's weekly podcast—this week's guest is baseball historian Bill James—go to si.com/poscast
The crowd aches for McIlroy. Haven't we all felt the world spinning away from us? Haven't we all hit golf balls into the trees?