AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The most important moment in Rory McIlroy's career, he believes, is also the moment most of us would assume was his most embarrassing.
You probably remember it well, but it's worth recounting. On Sunday in 2011, he came to the 13th tee at the Masters, looking shaky but still in contention after blowing a four-shot lead, and he snap-hooked a drive to his left, into the pink azaleas across Rae's Creek. On the tee, he buried his face in the crook of his elbow and, for a few seconds, with millions of people watching, he choked back tears. He knew, at that moment, he had thrown away a chance to win the Masters.
When he called his parents that next morning, he did cry, telling them he worried he would never get another chance to don a green jacket. He couldn't resist the temptation to see what people had been saying about his meltdown. On every channel, there were replays of him choking. He hated that word, but he knew that's exactly what had occurred. He'd choked.
"I realized I wasn't ready to win major championships, and I needed to reflect on that and realize what I needed to do differently," McIlroy said.
McIlroy is a different man, seven years later, in both looks and temperament. He has won four majors, gotten married and sculpted his once-doughy body to the point where he now possesses the physique of a middleweight prizefighter. Through a combination of his charisma, his raw power and his flair for the dramatic, he evolved into the most important character in golf during Tiger Woods' long absence from the game. He wasn't always the game's best during that time, but no one moved the needle like him. He was molded by his failures, not ruined by them.
There have been ebbs and flows in his ascent to become golf's alpha dog, but he has now come full circle. McIlroy is in position, once again, to potentially win the Masters after a sizzling third-round 65 left him just three strokes behind leader Patrick Reed. It will not be easy to reel Reed in, nor should it be. A McIlroy win would make him just the sixth man in history to win all four majors, and historic feats such as that ought to be difficult to complete. But when McIlroy takes to the tee Sunday, he will bring with him a swagger of steely confidence he did not possess at age 20, the last time he was so close to slipping on a green jacket.
"Now I'm ready," he said.
Nowhere was that more evident Saturday than the 13th hole, the scene of his previous despair. McIlroy was fighting to stay within shouting distance of Reed, who had just bogeyed the 12th hole in the pairing behind him. He mashed a drive past the trees on the right side of the fairway, leaving him with just 191 yards into the hole. A birdie seemed likely, an eagle possible. But in that moment, the rain -- which had been faintly falling much of the morning -- came gushing down. With water dripping off the bill of his hat, McIlroy stood over the ball, trying to get comfortable. "That was the hardest it was raining all day," he said. "I probably shouldn't have hit it when I did. I wasn't too comfortable over it."
McIlroy yanked his approach left, deep into the azaleas. The rain, as if someone was toying with him, stopped. Trudging up the fairway, he told himself he was likely going to make a six. When he arrived, he wasn't even certain he was going to be able to find his ball. "It was a sea of pink," he said.
Improbably, he found it. More improbably, he realized could take a stance that would let him slap the ball forward, through the flowers, in the direction of the green. It felt, in that moment, like his entire tournament hung in the balance. "Azaleas are actually pretty thin down below," McIlroy said. "They look pretty thick on top, but down below, they're actually not too bad. I could take a stance and just sort of pick the club straight up and get it back down on top of it and just trundle it out through the pine straw and back onto the grass."
With a lash, McIlroy's ball squirted out of the sea of pink, toward the green, leading to an unlikely par. He knew he had gotten away with one, but for whatever reason, luck seemed to be on his side throughout the day. As good as he was playing, he was also getting great breaks. On the eighth hole, his third shot was a chip that looked like it was going to race past the pin and go off the green. Instead, it crashed into the flagstick and dropped in for an eagle.
"Some days it's with you, and some days it's against you," McIlroy said. "Today it was with me. Hopefully I don't need to rely too much on luck tomorrow."
Though McIlroy didn't reveal how he's changed his mental approach over the years in majors, it's clear he's gotten better at learning how to relax in between shots. After he nearly made a hole-in-one on the sixth hole -- "I caught it a maybe a groove low," he said -- McIlroy and caddie Harry Diamond had a laugh walking up the seventh fairway when someone informed them that Manchester United, their favorite Premier League team, had won 3-2 over Manchester City. "That was a nice little tension reliever, I guess," he said.
Even if McIlroy wins on Sunday, it's unlikely he'll ever reach the level of sustained excellence that Woods achieved for more than a decade. And that's OK, because it's obvious McIlroy wants a more well-rounded life for himself. But he has picked up a few of Woods' tricks over the years, including understanding the subtle art of shifting pressure off of himself and onto his opponents. "I'm really excited to go out there tomorrow and show everyone what I've got, show Patrick Reed what I've got," McIlroy said. "All the pressure's on him tomorrow. I'm hoping to come in and spoil the party."
While Reed is unlikely to feel intimidated playing with McIlroy, especially after Reed defeated him in singles at the 2016 Ryder Cup, McIlroy was happy to point out he will be trying to win his fifth major, a number that would give him as many as Phil Mickelson, Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros. Reed is playing for respect, to prove he belongs among the game's elite. McIlroy is chasing history.
"Patrick is going for his first," McIlroy said, letting the words hang in the air for an extra beat. "I'm going for ... something else."