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Though he had yet to win a major championship, he tied for third in three of the last five and handled his emotions well.

His time had come, and when he stepped to the first tee and smashed a drive 320 yards down the middle of the fairway, there was no reason to believe the day would end with anything other than victory.

“I was very confident,” McIlroy said. “I felt if I played the way I played the last few days it would work out.”

But he 3-putted the first hole, botched a fairway bunker shot on the second, and missed a short birdie putt on the third. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods was burning up the front nine, Schwartzel was moving closer and the whole field was tightening up.

What was going to be a romp was now a dogfight. Still, McIlroy was hanging on, even if his grip was no longer so steady.

Earlier that morning his manager, Chubby Chandler, stood outside the clubhouse and said his young charge seemed ready. There was no reason to believe otherwise about a player who was so loose all week that every night he threw a football around with three of his golfing buddies from back home.

“It will be a big learning experience,” Chandler said. “But you can only get this chance four times a year.”

Had McIlroy hung on to win, he would have been the second youngest Masters champion ever, just a few months behind Woods. Had he been fitted for a green jacket, he would have been the unquestioned leader of a group of rising young players.

Now golf fans will talk about his collapse in the same breath with Norman’s 15 years ago against Nick Faldo. They’ll compare his 10th hole with the 18th at Carnoustie that Van de Velde so famously butchered.

It’s because the expectations were so high, and the stakes so huge. History shows that players who cough up big leads in big tournaments often don’t get another chance, their psyche permanently shattered by thoughts of what might have been.

The affable McIlroy insists that won’t be him, and for that golf fans should take comfort. He’s an exciting young player with a personality so endearing you’re tempted to rub his tousled head as he walks between holes. Golf is a better sport with him in it.

The shadows were lengthening across Augusta National when his long day was finally done. Schwartzel had already been taken away to Butler Cabin for his formal winner’s interview, but McIlroy managed a smile as he walked off the 18th green and handed his ball to a young fan.

A few minutes later, fans applauded him from the clubhouse balcony as he walked inside, still trying to process the events of the last few hours.

“I just need more experience to try to hang in there and grind away,” McIlroy said. “It’s never nice to be leading a tournament and do what I did today.”

He headed to the locker room, where he cleared out his stuff before answering a few more questions.

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