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Augusta fades, not Rory McIlroy

It was about 11 p.m. Sunday evening and Rory McIlroy was with three mates from Northern Ireland at a rented house not far from Augusta National, having had dinner and a couple of beers.

Earlier in the day, McIlroy had walked onto Augusta National's 10th tee, leading the Masters with nine holes to play, a place most players go only in their dreams.

In a blur, it had gone away, lost in the swirl of a ricocheted tee shot, a four-putt green and a creek ball. It had taken less than an hour to undo 31/2 days of beautiful work.

With nowhere to hide, McIlroy trudged to an inglorious finish, a final-round 80 that was as shocking as it was sudden.

The Wells Fargo Championship, which will begin Thursday at Quail Hollow Club, will be McIlroy's first PGA Tour event since the Masters. He will celebrate his 22nd birthday today.

David Feherty, the CBS Sports golf announcer, was with McIlroy that Sunday evening. Like McIlroy, Feherty is from Northern Ireland, where golf and all of its fickleness is part of their heritage.

"So many people were brokenhearted for him. He's every mother's son," Feherty said. "Here's a kid who's led the Masters for 31/2 rounds. He's not the first person to hit one bad shot on the second nine and have it unravel in front of him.

"Rory said to me, 'If that's the worst day of my life, I'll be luckier than most people.'"

Graeme McDowell, another native of Northern Ireland, remembers hearing stories about the kid from Holywood with the curly hair and the big golf game.

There are stories like that at every club, youngsters with games beyond their years. But it's not every day a 16-year old shoots 61 in competition at Royal Portrush Golf Club, one of the great links in the world.

"That was pretty obscene," McDowell said. "That was the time when I stood up and said hmmm..."

Two years later, McDowell and McIlroy played a practice round, their first together, at the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland before the Dunhill Links Championship. McDowell is 10 years older than McIlroy, who was in his first year as a professional.

McDowell shot a sporty 68 around the Old Course but had lost his match by the 17th hole.

"That's when I thought, 'This kid is pretty good,'" McDowell said.

Getting early start

McIlroy grew up in a golfing family in Holywood, not far from Belfast. His father, Gerry, was a good player when he wasn't working two jobs to support his son's golf career.

On Sunday mornings, Rory, his father and two uncles would play regular matches at Holywood Golf Club, where Gerry McIlroy tended bar. It's where club pro Michael Bannon began sculpting McIlroy's smooth, freewheeling swing, which he still watches over today.

"He was a super talent. All I had to do was put a swing around him that would last," Bannon said.

McIlroy became a member of Holywood Golf Club at age 8, and when he wasn't at the course, he worked on his game at home.

There was a front-loading washing machine in the kitchen, about 35 feet from the front door. McIlroy would stand near the door and pitch plastic golf balls down the hallway and into the washing machine, night after night, sometimes for two hours at a time.

As McIlroy's talent grew, so did his attitude.

"When I was 15 or 16, I was cocky," McIlroy said. "I've had to strike a balance between having self-belief and being confident but also being humble and modest. I believe in myself 110percent on the golf course. I believe I can beat anyone in the world."

Heck of a debut

Two years ago, McIlroy took Bannon to Augusta National before the Masters, and they played with Quail Hollow Club President Johnny Harris and member Mike Malone.

McIlroy's 2009 PGA Tour schedule was set, so Harris invited him to play in Charlotte in 2010.

"Rory said, 'Yeah, I hope to be there,'" Bannon remembered.

By the time McIlroy arrived at the 18th green on Sunday of last year's Quail Hollow Championship, he was just along for the ride.

What began with a 4-iron shot into the seventh green Friday afternoon - a swing that set up an eagle that allowed him to make the 36-hole cut on the number - had cascaded into a Sunday afternoon avalanche.

He had changed putters for the weekend, and the hole kept getting in the way of seemingly every putt McIlroy hit. He shot 6-under 66 Saturday with bogeys on his first and last holes, then turned Sunday's final round into a masterpiece.

When McIlroy flushed a 207-yard, 5-iron shot uphill into the 15th green, stopping it 3 feet from the hole for an eagle, the tournament had become his, not Phil Mickelson's, his nearest challenger.

McIlroy called the 5-iron "one of the best golf swings I've ever made." At home in Florida, McDowell was spellbound.

"That's who he is. He has shots in the bag like a Tiger (Woods), like a Paul Casey," McDowell said.

"There's no way I'll ever hit (what played like) a 230-yard 5-iron coming in like a butterfly with blisters. I just don't have that shot. Rory makes the game look incredibly easy."

McIlroy followed the eagle with a birdie from a fairway bunker at No.16, a par at the treacherous 17th, then capped it with a 42-foot birdie putt for a 62 that echoed to tiny Holywood, Northern Ireland, and around the globe.

"He finishes with six threes on that golf course on that day," Feherty said. "People forget how difficult it was that day.

"You're trying to win your first PGA Tour event that day and you're at one of the hardest, one of the best golf courses in the world, never mind the United States, with one of the most brutal finishes, 17 and 18. That was the most impressive thing I'd seen for a very, very long time."

For McIlroy, whose other significant professional victory had come at the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic on the European PGA Tour, it affirmed his place near the top of the game.

"Some guys say they don't realize what they're doing, but I was fully aware of where I was. It just felt like I had total control over the golf ball, especially the back nine," McIlroy said.

Taking bad in stride

Late Sunday at Augusta National this year was so different.

Maybe if McIlroy hadn't pulled his tee shot on the 10th, a nagging tendency under pressure, it would have ended with a green jacket instead of a wide-eyed look and the sympathetic applause of a gallery after the awkward, ugly finish.

McIlroy had smiled through the heartbreak, gracious to the end, a mirror on the manners he learned as a youngster.

"I don't think I was ready," McIlroy said of his collapse. "That was the most important thing. I displayed a few weaknesses in my game I need to work on.

"For 63 holes, I led the golf tournament and it was just a bad back nine... a very bad back nine... that sort of took the tournament away from me. But what can you do? There's three more majors this year, and hopefully dozens more I'll play in my career."

McIlroy has been close in majors before, tying for third three times during his still-young career. He shot 63 at St. Andrews last summer to lead the British Open after one day but flamed out with 80 in the wind on the second day before gathering himself on the weekend.

After the Masters, McIlroy flew off to Malaysia, where he finished second in an Asian Tour event before returning home to his friends, family and two dogs, Theo, the labradoodle, and Gus, the cocker spaniel.

McIlroy had a practice session with Bannon last week, who liked what he saw.

"He won't dwell on" the Masters, Bannon said. "He trusts his game."

'It's only golf'

Back at Quail Hollow, where McIlroy had his most spectacular victory, the shadow of Augusta still is clearing.

"All the greats say you've got to throw a few away before you can really win these things. I'm a believer Rory is just going through that phase right now," McDowell said.

"I felt really sorry for him. But it's a learning experience that will stand him in great stead. You have to put yourself in those positions to learn."

Before McIlroy went off to bed that Sunday night in Augusta, Ga., he and Feherty talked about winning.

Feherty told McIlroy it wasn't until after his playing career that he realized he had been his own worst enemy.

"I didn't want to win," Feherty told McIlroy. "But you do."

"He said, 'Yeah, I do.' I said, it shows and you will. You didn't (win the Masters) but you will."

Perhaps soon.

"I'm fine," McIlroy said. "It was a great chance to win a first major, but it's golf. It's only golf at the end of the day. No one died. Very happy with my life, very happy with what's going on, very happy with my game."