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McIlroy won't again fall victim to head games

Rory McIlroy's fatal mistake on Sunday of the 2011 Masters was in making like Tiger Woods. He elevated his focus beyond the norm. He shut himself off from the outside world. He walked Augusta National with his eyes to the ground and his hearing on mute and he crumbled down the stretch in a performance as uncharacteristic as the demeanor he brought into the day.

McIlroy will never be another Tiger Woods. He might win as many tournaments as Tiger and capture as many majors as Tiger but he won't do it by pretending he exists and we don't. Unlike Woods, McIlroy will enjoy the journey, be at peace with his celebrity. He'll attract followers the way Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson did. His fan base will increase because he's likable, pleasant, engaging. And gifted.

The contrast in personalities between golf's most accomplished active golfer and his heir apparent emerged again during Tuesday's pre-Masters interview sessions at Augusta National. Tiger was as Tiger is: wary, guarded and matter-of-fact. He seldom deviates from the script, rarely provides insights that dip below the surface. Tiger is most comfortable in golf and life when everybody's kept outside the ropes. But who's to question his ways given his successes?

McIlroy's a different sort: open and honest. Can you imagine Tiger sobbing to his mother after losing a golf tournament and then -- horrors! -- talking about it? Can you imagine Tiger reflecting on a final-round 80 at Augusta as McIlroy did Tuesday, saying, "It wasn't the end of the world. Again, it's only golf. It's not like anyone died out there that Sunday."

McIlroy would have been the second-youngest Masters winner ever (second only to Tiger). He carried a four-shot lead into the final round, a defining wire-to-wire victory in his grasp. But it was evident from the outset that he wasn't himself, and victory vanished in the flames of a spectacular triple-bogey on No. 10.

Immediately afterward, McIlroy laughed off the round with his caddie. But that was nothing more than a form of denial. His true feeling emerged in a subsequent phone call with his mother.

"That was the first time that I had cried in a long time about anything," McIlroy said. "And, yeah, I supposed I sort of let it all out that morning, and I definitely felt better after it."

The healing process had begun, and it continued when McIlroy received another phone call the next week at his hotel in Malaysia. It was Greg Norman, who frittered away a six-shot lead in the '96 Masters, who had been victimized by Larry Mize's playoff chip-in in '87, who finished second by a stroke in '86 when Jack Nicklaus shot 30 on the backside.

"So he's had experience of that before, and I think it was great coming from him, because I'm sure he knew how I felt," McIlroy said. "And he said a couple things to me that I found very useful and sort of put into practice, especially weeks like this where there's so much hype and there's so much buildup.

"That was big for me. It was just great to get the phone call from him, because I think he knew more than anyone else how I was feeling at that point."

Two months later, McIlroy had his major breakthrough in the U.S. Open at Congressional. Again, he led each of the first three rounds. This time he finished, becoming the event's youngest winner since Bobby Jones in 1923. It was a stirring show of resiliency after the angst of Augusta.

"Coming back and winning the U.S. Open was something that was very important to me," McIlroy said. "It sort of proved to myself more than anything else that I was able to win at the very highest level in this sport and gave me great confidence in myself that if things did go wrong, I knew how to fix them and I knew how to go forward. If it ever happens again I just need to rely on that resilience to sort of get straight back up and get back at it."

Now McIlroy's back at Augusta, ranked No. 2 in the world after a short stay at No. 1. Last year he wanted to see where his game could take him. This time around he expects nothing less than to contend. And if he does he vows he won't make the same mistake twice. He won't let the moment get the best of him by transforming him into someone he isn't.

"For me, it was trying to be too focused, too perfect," McIlroy said. "For me, I feel like myself, I'm more relaxed. I sort of have a bounce in my step and sort of a heads-up looking around at other people. That day, I felt like from watching the tape back, I was very -- I was always looking at the ground. I was very insular. My shoulders were a little bit like this [drawn tight], sort of like I didn't want the outside world to get in instead of embracing the situation and saying, 'You know, I've got a four-shot lead at the Masters, let's enjoy this.' "

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