Monday 11 December 2017

Rory: ‘I don’t really know what’s going on’

Karl McGinty

WHETHER it was blinding pain from a wisdom tooth or the intolerable weight of his own and the world's expectations, Rory McIlroy snapped like a dry stick and with a crack that' ll reverberate for some time to come.

The sight of McIlroy, his shoulders slumped and his spirits visibly crushed, walking off the golf course after completing the first eight holes of his second round at The Honda Classic in a calamitous seven-over-par sent a shock wave coursing through his sport.

Especially when reputable US news agency Associated Press quoted remarks made by the world No 1 to three reporters in the parking lot at PGA National as caddie, JP Fitzgerald, loaded the 23-year-old's clubs into the boot of his BMW sports car.

"There's not really much I can say guys," McIlroy told the reporters. "I'm not in a good place mentally, you know?" Asked if there was anything wrong with him physically, he said: "No." When one of the reporters enquired about his swing getting stuck, McIlroy replied: "Yeah, I don't really know what's going on." APOLOGISING Within an hour, however, McIlroy issued a statement through his management company "sincerely apologising" to the Honda Classic and PGA Tour "for my sudden withdrawal." The statement went on: "I've been suffering with a sore wisdom tooth, which is due to come out in the near future.

"It began bothering me last night (Thursday), so I relieved it with Advil.

It was very painful again this morning and I was simply unable to concentrate.

It was really bothering me and (his poor play) had begun to affect my playing partners." The US Tour officially re-issued this message to the media, which may be significant, given their stated policy that "during a round a player may withdraw because of injury or other disability which requires medical attention or a serious personal emergency.

"The player shall notify the PGA Tour, tournament director or a Rules Official of his reason for withdrawal and within 14 days submit written evidence supporting such reason to the (Tour) commissioner." McIlroy returned to the golf course moments after his departure to formally inform the tournament director that he'd withdrawn from the event.

I understand he recently visited the dentist complaining of pain with two wisdom teeth and will have the problem treated this weekend. This may satisfy the US Tour… though pictures of the Holywood star eating a sandwich during yesterday's ill-fated round did little to boost his case. However, the possibility of a fine is the least of his problems right now.

The image of McIlroy simply shaking hands with playing companions Ernie Els and Mark Wilson and walking straight off the course after hitting his approach shot into the water at 18, without any obvious consultation with a medic or any other official, points to a crisis with which extends well beyond an aching jaw.

Though he and his back-room team insist he's perfectly happy with his new Nike equipment, there's no question the fraught process of adjusting to new clubs contributed to McIlroy's recent loss of confidence in the one thing he holds most dear, his golf swing.

Six-times Major champion Nick Faldo had warned that changing clubs was "dangerous" and his words certainly took on new weight as McIlroy, plainly struggling with his new Covert driver and dissatisfied with the Method putter provided by Nike, missed the cut last month in Abu Dhabi.

Though beaten by Shane Lowry in the first round of last week's Accenture Match Play, McIlroy insisted this week he was happy with the performance of his driver and putter in Tucson, adding he and coach Michael Bannon merely had a 'timing' issue to sort out in his swing.

Yet seeds of self-doubt had been sown which ultimately left McIlroy vulnerable on the golf course, setting him up for utter humiliation.

European Tour star Thomas Bjorn best described the sense of hopelessness which can envelop even the most gifted golfer when his game simply falls apart.

"I just saw trouble everywhere. The fairway looked tiny. The green seemed to shrink to the size of the hole," the Dane explained after leaving the golf course "pursued by demons" during the first round of the 2004 European Open at The K Club.

"It just got away from me," Bjorn added. "I didn't believe in anything. I didn't have a shot that I could go to when I was under pressure. It just ran away from me and there was nothing out there but fear." Despite an aggravating bogey six on 18 on Thursday, McIlroy drew some encouragement from his level-par 70 in the first round and, judging by a picture he tweeted early yesterday, he was in good spirits at a dinner to celebrate his mother Rosie's birthday.

The first inkling of the horrors about to befall the Holywood star came at his second hole, the 11th, early on, when he hit his approach from the fairway into deep greenside rough and then hit his recovery through the green on his way to a dispiriting double-bogey six.

A slipshod bogey five followed at 13, where he carved his tee shot deep into up, then chipped to six feet and missed the putt for par.

He was bitten even harder at 16, the par-four in the middle of the bear trap, where McIlroy dumped two balls into the water on his way to a triplebogey seven.

After three-putting from 42 feet for a bogey four at 17, McIlroy's resolve finally snapped when his approach shot from the fairway at 18 splashed into the water just shy of the green.

We have seen McIlroy endure horrors on the golf course before, most vividly during his Sunday afternoon meltdown at the US Masters.

On that occasion, his fighting spirit forced him to carry on through adversity and McIlroy, then just 20, stunned the world with his bravery.

After enduring the death of his Masters dream on the golf course, he showed true character by squaring up to the TV cameras in its aftermath.

It is the difference between McIlroy's defiance on that occasion and yesterday's surrender which indicates just how much his spirit has been eroded in recent months by the pressure to perform up to last year's exalted standards as he grapples with unfamiliar equipment.

No question, this crisis will pass.

McIlroy is too talented and his faith in Bannon, his coach since boyhood, is so strong, it's only a matter of time.

With the Masters looming next month, the pressing question is how long will this healing process take.

So far this year, McIlroy has managed to play just five tournament rounds, leaving him ring rusty and contributing to his uncertainty. Mercifully, there's no cut at next week's Cadillac World Golf Championship in Doral, so, dental treatment permitting, he'll get four rounds there.

Though scheduled to play just one more event, the Shell Houston Open, before the Masters, this would mean a maximum of just 13 rounds before Augusta. So he now seems certain to play either Transitions in a fortnight or the following week's Arnie Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

McIlroy may soon recover from his humiliation at The Honda, the low point of his stellar career. But erasing memories of the day he said 'No mas' will take a great deal longer.

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