The 21-year-old from Northern Ireland was the best player for three days at Augusta National but when it mattered most his chances of a maiden major title unravelled in catastrophic fashion amid the beauty of one of golf’s most iconic venues.
Leading by four after three almost faultless rounds, McIlroy was caught quickly by Tiger Woods and eventual winner Charl Schwartzel before losing control of his swing and his lead.
His tee shot at the 10th, when he hooked the ball straight into the trees, was the decisive moment. Three holes and six dropped shots later and it was all over. His four-shot lead ended up being a 10-shot deficit.
McIlroy’s collapse has been likened to that of Greg Norman’s 15 years ago but that is too easy a reference.
For one, the 1996 Masters was a straight shootout between two legends of the game, Norman and Nick Faldo with the Australian, a serial choker at Augusta, holding a six-shot lead over one man.
By contrast, McIlroy was four clear of a host of players who had proven their own considerable form over the opening three days and by the time he walked off the second green on Sunday, having dropped only one shot, his lead had already been wiped out, such was the speed at which Woods and Schwartzel came out of the traps.
While he may have lost his head on the course, McIlroy was magnanimous in the immediate aftermatch of his defeat with his willingness to face the media and face up to his faults.
“I don’t think I can put it down to anything else than being part of the learning curve,” he said.
“Hopefully if I can get myself back into this position pretty soon I will handle it a little bit better.
“There are a lot worse things that can happen in your life. Shooting a bad score in the last round of a golf tournament is nothing in comparison to what other people go through.”
He is getting closer to a major win. At the Open last July he followed a first-round 63 with another 80 and a month later in the PGA Championship he missed out on the play-off by one shot after bogeying the 15th and then failing to take a birdie chance at the last.
McIlroy is not the only Briton to have gone close at Augusta since Faldo’s third and final triumph. Justin Rose, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald – now twice, after a fourth-placed finish on Sunday – have all flirted with the green jacket ceremony in Butler Cabin.
“He’s a young player. He’ll bounce back, I’m sure,” said Donald. “He’s got a great future, he’s just got to take the learning experience from this and try to get better.”
McIlroy has years on Donald and company, as he has on people like Dustin Johnson, who led the US Open after three rounds last year only to self-destruct with an 82, and Nick Watney, who slept on a three-shot advantage at the 54-hole mark at the PGA only to rack up an 81. Both of those have bounced back quickly.
McIlroy is young enough, and certainly talented enough as he showed in the opening three days, to create another chance for himself. And when he does, he will be better prepared mentally to take that chance.
Perhaps the way he and the rest of those Britons, whose obvious talents have yet to be backed up by the requisite winning mentality, can break through in majors is to follow the blueprint of Schwartzel.
The 26-year-old South African was a peripheral figure for three days as he played himself steadily into contention, only to produce the finest 18 holes of his career to change his life forever. How often does a leaderboard drastically change complexion over the closing holes of a tournament?
Before the Masters, McIlroy observed that after winning only twice in 100 starts as a professional, he needed a better ratio in the next century of events.
Should he become a serial winner in regular events on both the European and US PGA Tours, the next time he leads a major going into the final day he may have more conviction in his ability to finish the job and consequent control of his swing and emotions. This will not be the breaking of McIlroy.
As for Schwartzel, the Masters is the making of him. It was only his second appearance at Augusta, while second-placed Jason Day was debuting, the two men mocking the theory that only experienced players prosper around golf’s most beguiling arena.