My Sportsman: Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy stayed in that Augusta National locker room Sunday evening longer than any of us would have. He offered smiles, shrugs and his best explanation of a round gone wrong.
He stood where Greg Norman once stood, in that locker room reserved for non-champions, the Masters equivalent of purgatory.
"You know, I'm very disappointed at the minute," McIlroy, the young Northern Irishman, said after coughing up a four-shot lead with an 80 at the Masters, the worst final-round score by a leader in history. "I'm sure I will be for the next few days, but I'll get over it."
And how would he get over it after that snap hook on 10 that nearly left the property, and the uncomfortable two hours that followed? Golfers don't come back from carnage like that, not in the same calendar year or, for most, even the same lifetime.
"I've got to take the positives," McIlroy insisted. "I'll have plenty more chances. Hopefully it'll build a little bit of character in me as well."
It turns out that the character was already there, revealing itself two months later at the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, where McIlroy won his first major championship and my vote for SI Sportsman of the Year.
At rain-soaked, muscular Congressional, McIlroy played the kind of golf that only a handful of players can claim, beating a major-championship golf course into submission and pummeling his peers by eight shots. And only McIlroy can say he did it after such calamity eight weeks earlier.
McIlroy is my Sportsman for the way he handled victory and defeat in 2011, his grace at the Masters and his humility at the U.S. Open. In his most painful professional hour, he maintained his poise despite seeing his skills betray him. He missed short putts and blew drives off the planet. He clanked shots off trees. He hit a water ball on the gorgeous par-5 13th.
After it was over, he still posed for a picture with the man who vanquished him, Charl Schwartzel, who was clad in the green jacket that Rory had seemed destined to win.
To then turn that nadir into a sweet four-day walk at Congressional was sporting resilience at its highest.
His romp in the national championship was so audacious that it stirred memories of Jack and Tiger in their heyday.
Here was the latest golfing prodigy realizing the enormity of his gifts and bringing the public along for the ride with abundant flair. In a championship that grinds and guts its competitors, McIlroy played nearly perfect golf. In a sport whose biggest name has yet to rebound from scandal and swing changes, McIlroy made his claim as the game's newest leading man.
Not that Rory was perfect in 2011. In the knee-jerk world of Twitter, he told a European Tour analyst to "shut up" after he criticized McIlroy's course management in the Irish Open.
It was a lapse in judgment, but not a disqualifying one. If anything, it showed that the 22-year-old McIlroy is still learning to navigate the game he might ultimately rule. Believe that he will get there and soon.
In April, he will return to Augusta National, the site of both his downfall and the start of his rise. He will begin the week in the locker room reserved for non-champions. Odds are he will end it with privileges to the locker room occupied by legends