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McIlroy turns Augusta collapse into major triumph

updated 9:53 AM EDT, Thu March 29, 2012
Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy reached the top of the world rankings for the first time earlier this month.
Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy reached the top of the world rankings for the first time earlier this month.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rory McIlroy spurned a four-shot lead on the final day of the 2011 Masters
  • Two months later the Northern Irishman triumphed at the U.S. Open, his first major crown
  • He became the youngest world No. 1 since Tiger Woods in 2000 earlier this month
  • His fellow Briton Luke Donald has since reclaimed top spot in the world rankings

(CNN) -- After a gut-wrenching collapse on the final day of the 2011 Masters, questions were asked about Rory McIlroy's mental fortitude and his ability to compete for golf's major honors.

But two months later, at June's U.S. Open, the Northern Irishman produced a resounding response to his doubters by romping to a record-breaking eight-shot victory at Congressional.

When the eyes of the golfing world fall on Augusta next month for the first major of 2012, it will offer the world No. 2 a chance to reflect on how he turned a soul-crushing low into a redemptive high.

"Last year's Masters was definitely a defining moment for me," the 22-year-old told the European Tour's website when asked about the tournament eventually won by South African Charl Schwartzel.

Can Tiger cap comeback with Masters triumph?

Love match. Caroline Wozniacki welcomes her boyfriend Rory McIlroy onto the court at Madison Square Garden. Love match. Caroline Wozniacki welcomes her boyfriend Rory McIlroy onto the court at Madison Square Garden.
Rory and Caroline doubles act
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Love match. Rory takes on Sharapova for Caroline Love match. Rory takes on Sharapova for Caroline
Rory McIlroy has risen to the top of golf's world rankings after winning the Honda Classic in Florida on Sunday. It caps a remarkable rise for the 22-year-old Northern Irishman in recent years. Here he is as a 14-year-old playing at the Boys Home Internationals at the Royal St David's Golf Club in Wales in August 2003. Rory McIlroy has risen to the top of golf's world rankings after winning the Honda Classic in Florida on Sunday. It caps a remarkable rise for the 22-year-old Northern Irishman in recent years. Here he is as a 14-year-old playing at the Boys Home Internationals at the Royal St David's Golf Club in Wales in August 2003.
From junior champion to world beater
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Top of the world: The rise and rise of Rory Top of the world: The rise and rise of Rory

"It could have been a crossroads in my career. I could have done what I did on Sunday at Augusta and let it affect me and let it get to me, and maybe go into a slump, or get down or feel sorry for myself."

But far from wallowing in self pity, McIlroy excelled at the next major. His 16-under-par total of 268 bettered a record previously held by 14-time championship winner Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000.

After clinching a first major in 2011, McIlroy reached another career landmark early in the 2012 season.

He became the youngest world No. 1 since Woods with victory at Palm Beach earlier this month, usurping Ryder Cup teammate Luke Donald.

"It was a big crossroads for me in my career," he said. "I was able to go down the right path and put things right by winning the next major.

"All I wanted to do was put myself in that position again just to see if I could handle it better -- and I proved to myself that I could."

McIlroy admitted one of the biggest mistakes he made during the final round of last year's Masters was to become preoccupied with his rivals, rather than focusing on his own game.

Last year's Masters was definitely a defining moment for me
Rory McIlroy

It is an error he is keen to avoid on his fourth visit to the Augusta National Golf Club.

"One of the worst things I did was just trying to stay ahead of everyone else. Instead, I maybe should have had a number in my head, like getting to 15 under. That way, you have a target, and that's all you're thinking about.

"You're not thinking about all these guys you're trying to keep ahead of. All you're thinking about is that target of 15 under ... You can't let your mind wander and start thinking about what anyone else is doing."

Donald regained the No.1 spot with victory at the recent Transitions Championships. Nevertheless, McIlroy's profile in the U.S. remains high.

Partly, it is due to his contrasting experiences at the Masters and then the U.S. Open. But his romance with former world No. 1 tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki has also ensured he is firmly in the media spotlight.

"It will be very different this year," he said after of the tournament getting under way on April 5. "I wasn't necessarily under the radar last year, but I'll be going there with a lot more attention.

"I'll try to take the same approach to the tournament as I did last year. The week before, I'll go up to Augusta for a couple of days, do what I usually do

"Speaking about it makes me excited about going back there, and I can't wait for it to start now."

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