When an athlete fails in spectacular fashion the way Rory McIlroy did on Sunday, shooting a final-round 80 at the Masters after entering the day leading by four strokes, we tend to trot out the cliche about watching a car crash in slow motion. The implication being that our morbid curiosity makes it impossible to look away.
It's an apt description, I suppose, for the viewer, but not an accurate one for the athlete involved. Physically, McIlroy seems fine. Car crashes leave behind physical scars, and I don't believe he gained any from a miserable round of golf, even if it did include a shot from someone's backyard after a horrendous drive on the 10th hole. His scars are likely to be mental, which is why I think spending an afternoon shooting 80 with everyone watching and cringing -- when at breakfast you envisioned trying on a green jacket -- is more like having your heart broken, in public, over the course of four hours.
At some point, probably after he snap-hooked a drive into the creek on No. 13, all I wanted for McIlroy was for the cameras and fans to disappear so he could find a quiet place and sob in private.
The interesting thing about having your heart broken, though, is what occasionally emerges from the agony. We probably overstate the way that pain and disappointment build resolve -- it helps us cope to believe adversity begets all happy endings -- but sometimes it really is the fuel that leads to great art or physical achievement.
Take a second and watch this clip of Tom Brady talking to ESPN about the 2000 NFL draft, and how he spent the afternoon in agony at his parents' house, eventually walking around the block with his mom and dad, just wishing it would be over. Regardless of what you think about Brady, it's one of the most candid and genuine recollections of disappointment I've ever seen from an athlete.
Weird as it may seem, I was thinking about Adele's "Someone Like You" as I thought about McIlroy today. It's one of those songs that everyone seems to be listening to, passing along the link with a plea that goes: You just have to hear this. It's so lovely and sad.
Someone needed to break Adele's heart so she could write a song like that. Because without the pain, there wouldn't be the maturity and reflection necessary to create something beautiful.
McIlroy is already showing signs that he understands the bit about maturity and reflection. Unlike so many athletes who storm off the course in anger, or make excuses when they just don't have it, McIlroy stopped to answer questions and handled them with class and grace. He said he hoped shooting 80 would build character for the future. On Monday, he even re-tweeted a joke on Twitter where someone thanked him for showing people "that there's actually houses on Augusta." He even added an "LOL," a reminder that he's just 21 years old and has a lot of life ahead of him.
I really want to see McIlroy take the lead again some Sunday at the Masters, and I suspect I will. When it happens, I hope he plays so well, and with such resolve, I will once again find myself unable to look away.