Rory McIlroy Masters any fear of Augusta

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THE road to redemption began almost immediately for Rory McIlroy after his meltdown at last year’s Masters. Instead of allowing his final-round collapse to haunt him, the Northern Irishman used it for motivation, writes Julian Linden.

McIlroy confessed to shedding a tear in private as the enormity of blowing a four-shot lead and closing with an 80 hit him. But, from the despair of his loss, he has risen to greater heights and erased any doubts about his mental toughness as he prepares to return to Augusta this week for the 2012 Masters which begins on Thursday.

“Last year’s Masters was definitely a defining moment for me,” he said. “It could have been a crossroads in my career. I could have done 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 get down or feel sorry for myself.”

But McIlroy proved he was made of sterner stuff. Two months later he won the US Open at Congressional at a virtual canter, to claim his first major.

By any standard, it was an incredible performance. Just 22, he finished eight shots clear of runner-up Jason Day at 16-under-par, a record total for a tournament that dates back to 1895. “I was able to go down the right path and put things right by winning the next major,” McIlroy said. “All I wanted to do was put myself in that position again just to see if I could handle it better and I proved to myself that I could.”

Earlier this month, McIlroy ticked another box, reaching the top of the world rankings when he won the Honda Classic in Florida, repelling a late charge from Tiger Woods.

England’s Luke Donald regained the No.1 spot a fortnight later. Unfazed, McIlroy instantly tweeted his Ryder Cup teammate: “Well I enjoyed it while it lasted! Congrats @LukeDonald! Impressive performance!”

At the Masters last year, McIlroy still led by a shot after nine holes but came unstuck when his tee shot at the tenth nestled between two of the cabins that line the course. A week later, he posted a picture of himself in the woods on his Twitter page and joked he’d been spotted house hunting.

It is that irreverent humour and laidback manner that have made the mop-haired Northern Irishman an instant hit with the galleries and sporting public.

On the same day he became No.1, McIlroy jetted to New York to watch his girlfriend, Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, in an exhibition match against Maria Sharapova at Madison Square Garden. No shrinking violet, he suddenly found himself on court, trading shots with the Russian in an impromptu hit out.

“Caroline turned to the crowd and said, is there any hot guys that want to dance with me. And I’m like, well, I don’t want anyone else dancing with you, so I put my hand up. Thank God she didn’t ask me to dance. I was much happier hitting a tennis shot,” he said.

It is little surprise that heading back to Augusta National holds no fear either. There’s no anxiety, just excitement about the prospect of driving back up Magnolia Lane.

“It will be very different this year,” he said. “I wasn’t necessarily under the radar last year, but I’ll be going there with a lot more attention. Speaking about it makes me excited about going back there, and I can’t wait for it to start now.”

• Open champion Darren Clarke is facing a race against time to be fit for the Masters. Clarke limped off the course at the Shell Houston Open on Friday, having strained a groin muscle during his second round of 71.