McIlroy's Masters: Why Golf Is the Cruelest Mind Game

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Dave Martin / AP

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland watches as he misses a birdie on the 18th hole during the third round of the Masters golf tournament on Saturday, April 9, 2011, in Augusta, Ga.

All sports are competitive, but they are competitive in very different ways. Team sports pitch two groups of players against each other in direct combat. Racket and fighting sports involve individuals going at it against each other. In racing — whether power-assisted (horse, wind, internal combustion engine) or not — each individual competes against the field.

But some sports — target sports, such as archery and shooting; ice skating, bowling, classic ski racing — are different. An individual competitor in these sports can't directly affect how a rival does; he or she can only control his or her own game. That's what makes them so psychologically compelling; it's more than a sportswriter's cliché to say that those who play in such sports are competing against themselves.

Of all those true mind games, golf is the most cruel and heartless. That's a lesson Rory McIlroy learned the hard way on Sunday, April 10, at the Masters, when the 21-year old phenom from Northern Ireland blew a four-shot lead entering the final round.

As McIlroy's heartbreaking collapse showed, golf's physics is unforgiving. A golf swing is an extraordinarily complex piece of work (try drawing it, using just stick figures — see what I mean?) with all sorts of angles and torques and forces applied to hitting the ball. At impact during a drive, a top pro's club is moving at more than 100 m.p.h. (160 km/h), which means that a minuscule error — truly, too small for anyone to notice, no matter how knowledgeable they sound on TV — gets magnified such that it can have devastating consequences.

In addition, golf does not take place in a placid, pristine environment. Its setting is chaos theory made real. The game is played partly in a physical space where wind can puff or cease unpredictably, sending a poor shot onto the green or landing a good one in a bunker, and partly on land corrugated by all sorts of indentations, covered by grass that can lie this way or that and often lined with trees whose surfaces are not exactly the smooth planes of Euclidean laws.

I don't mean by stressing all this dry stuff that golf is a game of luck. It's not. Great golfers, as they say, get in a position to win. But when you couple a player's mind-set — confident or wobbly, as the case may be — with the impact of golf's physics and environment, anything can happen.

At Augusta, Ga., on Sunday, it did. McIlroy, who has been touted as the next big thing in golf since he was a teenager (and with very good reason), started the final round four shots ahead of the pack. It was plain early in his round that all was not well. In the first five holes, he missed three very makeable putts. But despite not looking all that comfortable, and notwithstanding the fact that others on the course were playing great, he turned for home still in the lead.

Then came the 10th hole. McIlroy must have made a tiny mistake in his swing, as he hooked his drive (meaning, for nongolfers, that it curved way to the left as he hit it). That was the unforgiving physics. Then the ball hit a tree; it could have bounced on the fairway, but instead it ricocheted up a hill between two of Augusta National's cabins to a place where nobody had ever seen a golf ball land before. That was a chaotic environment at work.

If he had had nerves of steel and great luck and if everything had gone right, McIlroy might have made bogey on the hole. He actually made a pretty good fist of his second shot, but by the time he got to the green, it was clear even on TV that his head was a mess. He eventually shot a 7 at the par-4, then made a hash of the next three holes to finish 10 strokes behind the winner, South African Charl Schwartzel.

For Schwartzel, unlike McIlroy, golf's unpredictable physics and environment turned out well: on both the 1st and 3rd holes, he holed out from a distance. Some of that was skill, but nobody should think all of it was. One tiny bump on the 1st green or gust of wind on the 3rd hole, and his head might have been in as bad a place as McIlroy's.

After the tournament was over and everyone had commiserated with McIlroy, there was the usual stuff about how this would make him stronger, with a general expectation that his talent would see him win a major one day. Maybe. But plenty of great golfers have never won a single major. (Winning more than one makes you a legend.) Watching McIlroy this week, I had a bad feeling that we might be seeing a replay of the adulation that greeted Sergio Garcia when he burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old at the PGA championship in 1999.

Garcia finished second in that tournament, aided by a legendary shot that seemed to defy any law of physics or math, and was widely predicted to have a great future ahead of him. Which indeed he has had. But playing such a psychologically challenging sport subject to unforgiving physics in a chaotic environment (think of his putt to win the British Open on the 18th at Carnoustie in 2007, which I swear went in the hole before it came out), more than a decade later, Garcia still has yet to win a major.