AUGUSTA, Ga. -- As difficult as the 2013 season was for Rory McIlroy, including a bevy of issues that led to a disappointing year, it didn't come close to comparing to the disappointment he felt after a final-round meltdown at the 2011 Masters.
The third-round leader at Augusta National that year, McIlroy shot a final-round 80 and dropped to tie for 15th, a memory that still stings.
"That's probably the only time I've cried over golf," said McIlroy, recounting a phone conversation he had with his mother the following day. "Last year was nothing compared to [that]. Especially blowing a lead in the final round of the Masters, because you never know if you're going to get that opportunity again.
"It makes it easier these days when you have two majors in the bag. Not that you don't care as much, but it's not the end of the world. You know that you will have more opportunities, and you've taken a couple of opportunities already."
McIlroy, 24, will be the old man in the group when he tees off Thursday with Masters first-timers Jordan Spieth, 20, and Patrick Reed, 23. This is McIlroy's sixth Masters, and his best finish remains that disappointment from three years ago.
But McIlroy bounced back to win the U.S. Open that year and captured the 2012 PGA Championship as part of a player-of-the-year season that saw him go to No. 1 in the world.
"I have no ill feelings toward 2011," McIlroy said. "I thought it was very important day in my career. It was a big learning curve for me. And I don't know if I had not have had that day, would I be the person and the player that I am sitting here, because I learned so much from it.
"I learned exactly not what to do under pressure and contention, and I definitely learned from that day how to handle my emotions better on the course."
McIlroy heads into the Masters ranked ninth in the world, lower than he has been in three years. Despite a promising start to 2014, having contended at tournaments in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and at the Honda Classic, he has dropped from No. 6, where he was at the end of last year following his victory at the Australian Open.
Still, McIlroy is viewed as a contender this week. He tied for seventh following a final-round 65 on Sunday at the Shell Houston Open.
"I'm excited to be back here," said McIlroy, who practiced at Augusta National for two days last week prior to Houston. "It's my sixth Masters, which is amazing to think how time flies. That it's been six years since the first time I came here. Really looking forward to the week. It's probably the most anticipated week of the year.
"So glad to be part of it and looking forward to getting going."