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Rory McIlroy stands on the 10th tee, some of the highest ground at Augusta National, surveying the regal golf course that, until now, he has conquered. It is Sunday. He leads the Masters by a shot. He is about to play the famous back nine for the cheers he has dreamed about since he was a seven-year-old boy growing up in Northern Ireland.
Now he will find out, beyond the childhood dreams, if he's good enough.
Shot 1: McIlroy snap-hooks his drive left. The ball ricochets off a tree and rolls to a spot between the Peek and Berckman cabins, about 100 yards left of the fairway. "Is it out-of-bounds?" he asks. No one at Augusta, not even the most grizzled observer, can recall any golf ball rolling there.
Few people remember how a nightmare starts. People usually pick up the nightmare already in progress, as in: "I don't know how I ended up in a volcano with the guys from Milli Vanilli." McIlroy knows exactly how his nightmare begins: with a shot so far left that CBS does not have a camera anywhere close—the shaky, blurry video of him standing between the cabins looks like film out of another era.
To this point, the golf ball had been obeying McIlroy's command. He led at the end of each of the first three days and entered Sunday with a four-shot lead, an advantage held by only 12 golfers in Masters history. Nine of them had won the tournament. The three who lost their leads—Ken Venturi (1956, led by four, lost to Jack Burke Jr.); Ed Sneed (1979, led by five, lost to Fuzzy Zoeller); and Greg Norman (1996, led by six, lost to Greg Norm ... uhh, Nick Faldo)—are remembered only for the agony.
Shot 2: After considerable effort McIlroy finds a small opening and pitches the ball into the fairway. He is still about 250 yards from the green.
The questions came at him in a barrage all weekend: How will you handle the pressure? How will you overcome your youth? How will you feel on Sunday? You are only 21, how will you hold up?
"I feel comfortable," he kept saying. He looked comfortable. He threw a football with friends in front of the house he had rented for the week (even getting yelled at by a neighbor). He practiced without a swing coach. He slept well. He seemed prepared for the moment.
"I think I'm a fast learner," he said after his first-round 65.
Shot 3: McIlroy is thinking about a bogey. If he can just get a 5, he will still be tied for the lead. He pulls his metal wood into the trees, and the ball rolls down into a valley, well left of the green.