BETHESDA, Md. – The sight of Rory McIlroy burying his head in the crook of his arm on the 13th tee is the lasting memory from his dreadful day at the Masters.
A disheartening scene. Nowhere near as devastating, though, as some of the images golf's budding superstar recently saw.
McIlroy, known as well for his implosion in the final round of the Masters as the gracious way he handled it, traveled last week to Haiti, a place where green jackets and golf trophies mean nothing — on a mission to the island country that is only starting to recover from the deadly earthquake that hit last year.
"I remember driving past the presidential palace," McIlroy said, "and the dome on top is just hanging off. I was just thinking to myself, if they can't even repair the (palace), then they can't do anything. They just need so much help."
The two-day trip offered the ultimate contrast to a place like this — Congressional Country Club, an ostentatious cathedral for golf, located a few miles from the nation's capital, the ultimate bastion of political power.
On Thursday, McIlroy will be among the favorites teeing off at Congressional for the 111th U.S. Open, the first major since the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland took a four-stroke lead into the final round of the Masters, held on gamely through the first nine, then watched it all go in the span of about an hour.
Every bit as memorable as the scene on the 13th tee box was the way he handled things in the aftermath — graceful and patient in explaining the failure, blaming nobody but himself, insisting he would learn from the experience and come back stronger the next time.
He's about as humble as they come — a quality instilled in him in his native country — which is why his decision to head to Haiti as a UNICEF ambassador in the week before the U.S. Open didn't come as much of a surprise.
He saw suffering that has abated only slightly since an earthquake hit there Jan. 12, 2010.
"It's definitely not a nice thing to see," he said. "It gives you a huge sense of just being so fortunate and just doing normal things every day. Even having streetlights and having smooth roads, you think those things are just a given, but those people down there don't have that, and they might not have that for the next 15 or 20 years."
Every day, the people of Haiti learn humility in a way it can never be taught on a golf course or any athletic venue; more than 50 percent of Haiti's population is under the age of 21 and McIlroy wants to help children while he's still young enough to relate.
Of course, the better McIlroy does on the golf courses of Europe and America, the better chance he'll have to spread the message about the suffering in places such as Haiti and Sri Lanka, another place he'd like to go to on a mission later this year. Which is why, ultimately, golf does matter for McIlroy, as does the way the youngster handles his successes and failures.
His first three rounds at Augusta this year showed off the potential.
Punctuated by a slippery, 30-foot birdie putt on No. 17 that sparked a Tiger-sized roar through Augusta, McIlroy took a four-shot lead into the final round, the biggest 54-hole lead since Woods himself led by nine during his history-making win in 1997.
But there was no closing this one out. He hit one of the most errant shots in the history of the tournament off the 10th tee box and made an 8 there. He needed seven putts to finish the 11th and 12th holes, then yanked his tee shot on 13 left and into the creek. His day was essentially over after that shot.
Asked how he was able to come off so composed in his post-round TV interview, he said, in his own self-deprecating way, that he knew "millions of people are going to watch that interview and sort of see what you have to say for yourself."
"But I've said to a lot of people, I had five or six holes to think about what I was going to say, so I was pretty prepared," McIlroy said.
Asked about McIlroy, two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els said he's the kind of player who could change the history of golf.
"If he keeps learning and keeps going, keeps his head up, boy, I think he's going to win a lot of majors," Els said. "But obviously, he has to win the first to win a lot."
McIlroy, no shock, isn't counting his wins quite yet. He's keeping things in perspective. As the message on his Twitter page says: "I hit a little white ball around a field sometimes."
"It's very flattering and it's great that people are saying these things about me, but I need to do it first, and I haven't done it yet," he said. "I just need to go out and play the golf that everyone thinks I'm capable of. And if I can do that for four days, then hopefully I'll be sitting in front of you guys on Sunday night and maybe saying, 'Yeah, maybe I could be a multiple major champion.'"