Commentary

Sayonara, Rory McIlroy, until Augusta

Updated: March 22, 2012, 10:36 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

Unless he pops up on television playing tennis with his girlfriend or is caught out on the town around his U.S.-based Florida digs, we're not going to see Rory McIlroy again until the Masters.

The newly crowned No. 1-ranked golfer in the world -- although his spot atop the rankings will be in peril while he is not playing -- has made what some might consider an odd decision to not play competitive golf in any of the three weeks leading up to the year's first major championship.

It's curious only until you consider that he did the same thing last year, where the time away seemed to work pretty well -- except for the well-chronicled final-day meltdown.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyWho's to argue with Rory McIlroy's pre-major prepartions? He's not even 23-years-old and he's got a major victory on his résumé and the No. 1 ranking in the world.

"I was against it," said Chubby Chandler, his agent at the time. "I told him I thought he should play a tournament during this time. But it worked out quite well for him, didn't it? He played a lot of golf during that time, played with his mates and had a good time and got refreshed. Hard to call that a bad decision."

And so begins -- or continues -- McIlroy's preparation for the Masters, where he famously took a 4-shot lead into the final round, only to implode by shooting 80 to finish tied for 15th.

McIlroy said he'll spend time with his longtime coach, Michael Bannon, who has come over from Northern Ireland. Next week he plans to be back in Miami because his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, will be playing in the Sony Ericsson Open. Then the week of the Shell Houston Open, the one prior to the Masters, he plans to go to Augusta National for a few days.

Then it'll be back to his base at The Bear's Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., before heading back to the Masters early during tournament week.

And he knows when he sets foot on the grounds at Augusta National in early April, things will be much different from when he arrived at the Masters a year ago. He's now a major champion who rebounded from his Masters disaster to win the U.S. Open. And if he's not No. 1 in the world, he'll be close.

"It will be very different," McIlroy said. "I wasn't necessarily under the radar last year, but I'll be going in there with a lot more attention, a lot of scrutiny because of what happened last year; the spotlight will be on me, and it's something that I'll just have to deal with.

"So it will be a little different, but I'll try to take the same approach and approach it like I did last year for at least for three days, anyway."

McIlroy can now laugh at how the final round transpired a year ago, how he felt the nerves of holding the lead, slowly letting it slip away and then falling apart with a back-nine 43 that saw him tumble down the leaderboard.

Along the way, he hit a tee shot off pine trees that caromed near the cabins to the left of the 10th fairway for a triple-bogey 7, made a double-bogey at the par-3 12th and hooked a drive into the woods off the 13th tee, slumping in disbelief.

Meanwhile, one of the most exciting Masters was unfolding, with numerous players in contention and Charl Schwartzel birdieing the last four holes to win.

For McIlroy, he handled the defeat with grace, and vowed to use it as a learning experience. Easy to say, of course.

"It was definitely a defining moment," McIlroy said. "It could have been the crossroads of my career. I could have did what I did on Sunday at Augusta and let it affect me and let it get to me, and maybe go into a slump or feel down or feel sorry for myself.

"But I had enough good people around me not to let that happen. It was a big crossroads for me in my career, and I was able to go down the right path and do the right things to put everything right and win the next major after -- all I wanted to do was put myself in the position again just to see if I had learned and see if I could handle it better."

McIlroy did more than that. He forged a big lead at Congressional and went on to win by 8 strokes.

Although he was not a contender at the remaining majors -- he suffered a wrist injury during the first round of the PGA Championship that hampered him -- he's been a force since.

McIlroy has shot just two rounds over par since the PGA Championship and has been out of the top five just once in 12 starts. He won twice, at the Hong Kong Open and the Honda Classic, and moved to No. 1 with his victory. After a slow start last week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, McIlroy shot his way into contention Sunday, only to fall 2 shots short of Justin Rose to finish third. His only finish outside of the top 10 going back to August was 11th at the Dubai World Challenge in December.

"I feel like I've handled everything pretty well," McIlroy said. "And I've definitely matured a lot and I've learned a lot in the last couple of years. So everything that's happened to me has been hugely positive and it's nice to be sitting here at 22 and have the No. 1 ranking and have won a major."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com