AT least one thing seemed certain amid all the mystery of Rory McIlroy’s mid-round withdrawal here on Friday.
If it was Tiger Woods starring in this farce he would be slaughtered.
McIlroy will escape with a slapped wrist and perhaps even some widespread sympathy.
He walked off the course after not completing his ninth hole of his second round here at the Honda Classic with tears in his eyes telling journalists it was not physical. “I’m not in a good place mentally,” he said.
An hour later he was not in a good PR place, either. A statement released on his behalf from the PGA Tour explained McIlroy withdrew because of “soreness to a wisdom tooth affecting concentration”. This after one of his managers had confirmed “he is not hurt” and after he was pictured on the 18th fairway, moments before he walked off, munching a sandwich. What was in it? Co-codamol?
The joke was that maybe McIlroy had been misquoted and in fact said: “I’m not in a good place dentally.” In truth, it was no laughing matter.
No, there was not much wisdom, but a lot of soreness on behalf of the Honda Classic and the game at large. You do not walk in. It is not only the unwritten rule among proud amateurs everywhere but a written rule on the professional tours.
He will have to provide written medical evidence within 14 days.
The probability is McIlroy will be fined, but we will never know about it officially. That is the way of the tours. They release a daft statement to the public, while making a wholly irrelevant statement behind closed doors. Professional golf’s pathetic omerta will not be changing any time soon.
But what about McIlroy – where next for him? After the dentist, obviously. Will he appear next week at the WGC Cadillac Championship in Doral to face a media inquisition which at the very best will be thorough? He needs to, however uncomfortable he may feel.
What McIlroy plainly requires now, apart from a full-time media adviser, are competitive rounds. He has only two events left before the Masters. Once the anaesthetic wears off he should enter another tournament. His swing is woefully out of sorts and combine this with the unease which comes to everyone using new equipment – whether Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods – then the result, at best, is mediocrity. When it is then mixed with an urge to run away, it descends into embarrassment.
The halo has slipped. McIlroy has confessed in the past that he struggles to grind it out when the rhythm is absent.
He is definitely not Woods in his pomp because without his A-game he cannot win – not yet, at least. Woods could compete whatever grade his game was operating at in any particular week.
McIlroy is aware he has to learn that skill, which is a lot more mental than physical. When the going gets tough, his head drops. The 23-year-old believed his education in that regard was progressing. On Friday was a big fat flunk.
As a defending champion you have a duty to the tournament and as a world No 1 you have a duty to the sport. It involves simply being there to be seen by the galleries who have paid for the privilege.
If that means ignoring dental pain and a lapse in focus then so be it. That is McIlroy’s job.
He knows this. McIlroy is immersed in golf and is respectful of its traditions. He will feel he has let down the game and will make amends.
His popularity is not undeserved. McIlroy’s personality is as genuine as his talent is natural. He has made a mistake in the heat of the moment, in the frenzy of frustration; nothing more.
What should be of more concern for anyone enthralled by the sight of this young champion in motion is his wretched form.
Much will be written in the next month about the Nike swoosh causing this slump. No doubt it is part of the problem. The numbers involved in the deal – £78 million over five years – heaped the pressure on McIlroy when he did not need it. But do not forget that McIlroy has been prone to these dips in his short career.
Last year, he missed four out of five cuts going into the Open before falling short at Lytham as well. Two events later he was winning the US PGA Championship by eight shots. McIlroy is streaky and, to be frank, his competitive spirit is flaky. But he should not walk off. Not while eating a sandwich and complaining of dental pain. He is way, way better than that.