AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The No. 10 gallery guard calls the stand of a dozen or so pine trees "The Pipes." Errant tee shots whiz over his head -- you can hear them, a pfffft -- and pinball off the trunks, each pop carrying a different tone and pitch, like a ball bouncing around the inside of an church organ. The Pipes, where a round goes to die. The past three days, during the practice sessions, he fielded endless questions about these trees and the golf shot a year ago that both unraveled and remade Rory McIlroy.
"It's the same question over and over," he said.
The site of Rory's disaster, which looks out on the big, white scoreboard and the cupola of the clubhouse, has become the newest stop on any visit to Augusta National. Most of the must-sees involve success, but this is different. Fans have sought out the teardrop-shaped grove of trees to see where the second-best golfer in the world became, for a long, terrible moment, just like them. They pulled out cameras and asked for the details.
The gallery guard pointed. Spoke softly, in clipped sentences. Just the facts. The ball bounced off that tree, the last one, about two feet from the rope. The one with the lightning rod on the back. It hit hard, like a gunshot, and flew almost straight left, coming to rest between two of the private white cabins reserved during Masters week for the V-est of the VIPs. Yesterday, a man sat on the porch beneath the stilled fans and worked the crossword. Security guards paced. The story came out in fragments of passing conversation: the 4-shot lead, the collapse, the carom. A member in a green jacket pointed to the place where McIlroy's ball finally stopped.
"He was in tears," a woman with him added.
McIlroy glanced at the spot when he walked by on Tuesday. The cabins seemed a lot closer than he remembered, he joked.
"They are only 50 yards off the tee," he said, laughing.
He made fun of the collapse, seeming at ease with what had happened and oddly self-aware about the flaws that had led to it, which, in the vapid hole of the interview room, came off as therapy couch revelation. The man who arrived in Augusta is only a vapor trail of the floppy-haired kid who left here a year ago, crushed. The triple-bogey he made after the pine tree ricochet took away his lead for good, and when he walked off the last green with an 80, he laughed bleakly with his caddie and wept when he called his mom. "It was the first time that I had cried in a long time about anything," he says. "I definitely felt better after it."
McIlroy flew straight to Malaysia for a tournament "to just get straight back on the horse." Greg Norman called him one day in his hotel room, and they talked about the burden of choking, of the odd mix of feeling swirling around in Rory's mind. He watched tape and studied his body language. He saw himself looking at the ground, his shoulders pinched forward, trying to focus so hard he lost himself. His game is full of joy. He needed to play that way. "One of the things I learnt was that as a person and as a golfer, I wasn't ready to win the Masters," he says. "Wasn't ready to win a major."
Something remarkable happened. McIlroy learned. He began to bridge the gap between the potential others saw in him and the greatness he wanted for himself. That's what separates champions from those who sort of trip into a major championship. The deliberateness. The knowledge, which makes the success repeatable. Most people win something like a Masters by navigating a weather system of luck and momentum. Golfers like Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus win by controlling the clouds. A few months after hitting a pine tree with his drive, McIlroy ran away from the field at the U.S. Open, winning his first major. Woods was impressed, not at the win as much as the fact that McIlroy won so soon after a public and defining choke.
A year ago, McIlroy partied in a rented house with a bunch of friends. The neighbors scolded them for throwing a football in the street. Now he's got a new agent, a famous girlfriend, and he's here again, with just family and his advisers. Woods says he could be "a great champion for a long period of time." All of that began in a grove of pine trees called The Pipes.
So they came, finding the guard in the yellow cap, confirming the specifics. A photograph a minute and twice as many points. Everyone smiled and laughed. Some guys mugged for a photo. One made a thumbs-down. The other held a cigar. A guy in a red raincoat snapped a picture next to a guy in a blue shirt. The raincoat put his camera away and walked back toward the clubhouse. One fan recognized the spot, and as a smile lit his face, he stared at the tree, then at his camera. Should he look or take a picture?
"There should be a plaque," a gawker says.
Shadows moved in the cabin windows, hinting at another world.
"I didn't know these were over here until he did that," another says.
A father and son stopped. The father quit his dental practice to move closer to his grandkids, trying to fix the mistakes his own father made. Part of that is this walk, a practice round. It's one of the oddest things in sports, people paying fistfuls of cash to see practice. They're not here for a sporting event. They've paid to genuflect at the place, to walk to spots they've only heard about or seen on a television screen. They're here to bridge the distance between imagination and fact. The father compared it to sacred Native American burial sites out west, and while that sentence sounds ridiculous to type seven hours removed from it being spoken, it made some sense on the side of the 10th fairway. Any place can be sacred if you find what you need there, and the transaction often has more to do with imagination than with facts. Augusta National, like any place, is what you want it to be. It's a place to be a better father to your son than your father was to you, or it's a place to try to figure out how a young man fails and then learns from that failure. It's a setting for a day with friends you'll never forget.
Someone across the way said, loudly enough to carry across the expanse of manicured grass, "You didn't even know what a bucket list was!" The mood was celebratory. Only rheumy-eyed drunks seem unhappy at the Masters. Two buddies took photos of the steep rise of the 10th fairway, and then one of them stared at the little screen on the back of the camera. The incline appears gentle on television; the only way to know is to feel your calves burn. The image on the camera looks just like the one beamed into his living room.
"It doesn't show up in a photo," he says to his friend.
People asked security guards to identify the Eisenhower cabin and the Jones cabin. They crowded the rope and looked at the arthritic branches of the big tree and the clubhouse, their backs to the first tee. Fans often ignore the golfers and their practice shots and stare, in silence, at the spot where Sarazen hit his double-eagle, or the grass where Tiger's chipped in on 16. That's the Eisenhower tree. The general hit it with his drives, and now they're looking at it, and somehow that is important. Place is the only way most of us can relate to greatness, to try to break its code. We can't understand what cocktail of genius and pain results in great fiction, for instance, but we can peer into the guts of Hemingway's typewriter, as if the answers live there, waiting to be translated.
It doesn't make sense, really. But for the past three days, thousands and thousands of people walked around a golf course where nothing was happening, staring at buildings and unmarked spots of grass, at Amen Corner and Rae's Creek, at bridges, at green jackets and the old, white-haired men wearing them. They stared at a pine tree and into a shaded valley between two white cabins. They all felt so close to it, as close as they'd ever be. The distance between them and that blanket of pine straw where Rory McIlroy stood over his ball was the exact distance between appreciating greatness and understanding it. They took out their cameras even if they weren't exactly sure why.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.