Augusta National is seared in the memories of many as the venue for Rory McIlroy's biggest heartbreak. How poetic it would prove if the Northern Irishman were to reannounce himself as the best golfer in the world at next week's Masters.
McIlroy was reduced to tears after his back-nine meltdown on the final day in Georgia two years ago. And little wonder; it was difficult for anyone to watch as the youngster capitulated when seemingly within touching distance of adding a Green Jacket to his wardrobe. Having gone into the final day with a four-shot lead, a triple-bogey seven at the 10th set the tone for his collapse. He ended up in a tie for 15th after failing to break 80.
"I like to focus on the good things in my career," McIlroy says. "I try and learn from mistakes, whenever you have a bad day like I did have there two years ago.
"I still think about the little putt I missed in Switzerland for my first win on the European Tour, back in 2008. I think about that in the sense of 'what was I doing' more than anything else. You learn from your mistakes and move on, you try and put into practice what you have learnt and then forget about it."
McIlroy offers an instant rebuke to the suggestion Augusta is somehow indebted to him after the 2011 collapse. "I don't think this game owes you anything. You have to go out and earn it, earn everything. No one owes you anything in golf, it is all about you going out and doing it yourself."
What is surely beyond question is that McIlroy will return to major-winning form at some point. It is just that the suggestion the rebirth will come at the 77th Masters is offset by McIlroy's struggles in 2013, though a second-round 67 at the Valero Texas Open on Friday was a promising sign. The player who surged to victory in the 2011 US Open at Congressional and 2012 US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island has, since a win in Dubai last November, faded into golf's shadows.
His switch to Nike equipment at the beginning of this year may have been lucrative but it has also been problematic, prompting the kind of criticism which McIlroy, to his credit, does not ignore. The reason being that the 23-year-old has previously been at his unbeatable best when seeking to prove his doubters wrong.
"Yes, that's fair," he says. "The last couple of times, I mean the only two times, I have won a major, it has come that way. I have come off a little bit of criticism and people questioning whatever it has been; from the Masters [in 2011] going into the US Open, 'Does he have the attitude, the mental toughness to finish it off?'
"I had just come through a bit of a rough patch last year heading into the US PGA, through the summer, and got that sorted pretty quickly. Maybe it is a good sign, maybe it is a good omen. I just wouldn't like to go into every major struggling, that wouldn't be a good thing.
"This is going to be the second year in a row that I go to Augusta as a major champion, which is always a nice thing. For me, it is my favourite tournament of the year. I'm looking forward to it, no matter what."
McIlroy's youth is often forgotten, such has been his fairytale rise from relatively humble beginnings. There are glimpses of it as his face lights up at the prospect of his girlfriend, the tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, donning a boilersuit and acting as a caddie for McIlroy at the Masters par-three event on Wednesday. "I am trying to persuade her," he says with a smile. "We will see."
There is an endearing memory, too, of how an even younger McIlroy dealt with the surroundings at Augusta. "In the first couple of years I played the Masters, I was in awe of the golf course and in awe of the place," he admits. "I was sometimes scared to take a divot because the place looked so good.
"Now you treat it as a golf course – you are playing against the same guys you play against week in week out. The only thing that changes is the place. It still has that aura about it, though."
The "a" word also applies to Tiger Woods. McIlroy was once bedazzled by the man who has recently overtaken him to return to the top of the world rankings. Albeit McIlroy takes no pleasure from being dislodged, there are benefits to golf's spotlight once again being focused firmly on Woods.
"I am never going to go into a tournament under the radar but most of the talk will be about the other guy," McIlroy adds. "There was obviously a lot of attention on me going into Congressional because Tiger wasn't playing and I was coming in after the Masters.
"Kiawah was the same sort of thing, people were wondering if Tiger could win his first major, how he was looking and whatever. It is nice, obviously you are still going to get the questions and there is going to be a lot of attention but not as much as it would be if I had won a couple of times beforehand."
A late schedule change means that McIlroy was denied the opportunity to visit Haiti, where he continues to assist Unicef's efforts to aid those who had lives ruined by an earthquake three years ago. He will return there, though, and is extremely conscious of the lessons such work offers.
"They don't care who I am, they are just happy for people to come down and help," McIlroy says. " It is a great dose of perspective when you do go to a place like that. That's not why I would go, obviously; I am going there to try and help, trying to raise awareness and money, but I guess a bonus for me is that it does give you that fresh dose of perspective.
"For a couple of days at the Houston Open I was kind of tentative on the golf course, kind of hanging on to the club a little bit. Then I think: 'What are you doing? Who cares if a golf ball doesn't go where I want it to?'"
That said, from Thursday morning McIlroy, against the backdrop of golf's greatest individual show and with the world looking on, will inevitably care. He wouldn't have it any other way.
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image: © Ed McDonald