Rory McIlroy withstood a harsh reality

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It wasn't a round of golf, it was an 18-hole funeral procession. A golf coronation turned into a wake.

The deceased: Rory McIlroy, winner of the Masters black crepe jacket.

The 21-year-old McIlroy began Sunday's final round with a 4-stroke lead. By the end he had aged in dog years, shooting an 8-over-par 80 to free fall to a tie for 15th and a full 10 strokes behind eventual winner Charl Scwhartzel. From phenom to failure in a single, agonizing afternoon.

Augusta National can do this. The pressure of the Masters can do this. It knees you in the crotch and steals your lunch money. It mocks you. It never sends an apology note.

"For 63 holes of this golf tournament I was leading," said McIlroy, after glumly gathering his belongings from the locker room.

And then he wasn't. Then he jumped off the back nine of Augusta National and his parachute didn't open. The splat was internationally televised.

Admit it -- you thought he would win. I did. His agent, Chubby Chandler, did. Lots of his fellow pros did. After all, 19 of the past 20 Masters champions had come from the final pairing.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland readied itself for a wee-hours celebration for one of its own. Family and friends collected at his home course in Holywood. Surely McIlroy, the ninth-ranked player in the world, was too good to ralph away a four-shot lead.

"He's an old 21," said Chandler, about 90 minutes before McIlroy teed off Sunday. "He looks 15. He plays like he's 30. And he's got a shrewd head on him."

By early evening he looked 115 and played like he needed MedicAlert. Any scarier and it would have straightened his curly mop of hair.

On the par-4 10th hole, he hooked a drive into "Star Trek" territory, going where no pro has ever gone before: in between the cottages located far, far to the left of the fairway. Said BBC commentator Peter Alliss in grave tones: "It's moments like this that the game becomes very cruel."

Triple-bogey 7. His lead was forever gone.

He bogeyed No. 11.

Doubled No. 12. "He just wants to creep away now," Alliss said.

He snapped his drive into the tributary of Rae's Creek on No. 13. If there is a sadder golf sight than what happened next -- McIlroy dropping his head on his right forearm, his body slumped in confusion and embarrassment -- I don't want to see it.

He bogeyed No. 15.

By the time he staggered off the 18th green for a back-nine 43, his shirttail hanging out of his pants, McIlroy had made the wrong kind of Masters history: a tie for the worst final round by a 54-hole leader.

But here's why this tournament is so cool: the Masters patrons rewarded McIlroy with a standing ovation as he left the 18th green. More patrons lined each side of his path to the Augusta National clubhouse and applauded. And you could even see Phil Mickelson's wife, Amy, cheering from the second-floor porch of the clubhouse.

"I don't know if people were just feeling sorry for me, or whatever it was," said McIlroy, who didn't dodge a single post-round interview request. "I'm incredibly grateful for it. I really appreciate it. It was a very tough day for me out there."

Roars caromed off the pines as seemingly half of the field made a run at the lead. Tiger Woods … K.J. Choi … Bo Van Pelt … Angel Cabrera … Luke Donald … Geoff Ogilvy… Adam Scott … Jason Day and Schwartzel, all took turns at the goose bump vending machine.

But for McIlroy there was only silence. Or sorrowful moans.

"I tried not to look at leaderboards that much," McIlroy said. "But when you're hearing roars, you knew pretty much what was going on."

Somewhere in the world, Greg Norman was shaking his head in sympathy. In 1996, Norman entered the final round of the Masters with a 6-stroke lead -- and lost by five to Nick Faldo. The Shark and The Hair now belong to their own select country club of misery.

"It was a character-building day, put it that way," McIlroy said. "I'll come out stronger for it."

A locker room attendant watched as McIlroy made his way toward the parking lot.

"He's as kind as you can be," said the attendant. "Kind of sad it had to happen that way for him."

McIlroy went to bed at midnight Saturday. He woke up at 9 on Sunday morning convinced that if he played a solid round of golf, he'd win his first major. Instead, he learned how unforgiving and indiscriminate the game can be.

"Oh and congratulations charl schwartzel!!" tweeted McIlroy later. "Great player and even better guy! Very happy for him and his family!"

That's it. I'm rooting for McIlroy until he slips on a green jacket, hoists a U.S. Open trophy, Claret Jug or a Wanamaker Trophy. He grew older Sunday. But in a strange way, he also grew in stature.

With or without that jacket.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.