Monday 11 December 2017

Tiger Woods comes to McIlroy defence

World number one and defending champion, Rory McIlroy walks off the course after the ninth hole at the Honda Classic.
World number one and defending champion, Rory McIlroy walks off the course after the ninth hole at the Honda Classic.

Paul Mahoney

OSACAR Pistorius: guns. Lance Armstrong: drugs. Tiger Woods: sex. Rory McIlroy: er , toothache. The latest PR disaster for the Nike family after McIlroy's bizarre withdrawal from the Honda Classic could hardly be called a scandal – no lives were lost or ruined – and once all the tooth gags have been extracted, this strange episode in the life of the 23-year-old world No 1 may amount to little more than making a mountain out of a molar hill.

But for now, McIlroy is the hot topic of conversation among the players, spectators and golf- channel analysts here in Florida as well as golf fans around the world – many offering support; many calling McIlroy a quitter via Twitter.

That comes with the territory of being world No 1, golf's bright young spokesman and ambassador, and Nike's newly unveiled $125m (£83m) global superstar. That's enough pressure to give a kid more than toothache to worry about.

The pressure of the ever-increasing spotlight has clearly been whizzing around McIlroy's head since he signed up with the swoosh in Abu Dhabi in January. It was his "Hello World" moment, just as Tiger had the original in 1996.

How must Rory be feeling right now, and what does it feel like to have everything you do and say analysed to death? That was a question put to Woods, Rory's new best buddy. "I don't know how he's feeling," Woods said. "But I do understand how that last part is, yeah."

Woods' own struggles continued here. He is off the pace at even par after three rounds. "I've been through it for a long time," he said. "But also this is a slightly different era as well. It's even faster than what it was when I came out. Things are instantaneous around the world. We were still in fax machines; things were a little bit slower. But still, Rory's just got to be…" Woods paused while his brain computed the right words to say, or the words that Woods wanted to say. A further illustration of a life lived under constant scrutiny.

It can eat away at a man's sanity. McIlroy has joined that celebrity planet where everything is free yet has a price to pay. Woods continued: "You've got to think about it a little bit more before you say something or do something. It can get out of hand, especially when you get into social media and start tweeting and all those different things that can go wrong, jokingly saying something doesn't always come off. It could be perceived as something else."

A perfect example of this was provided by David Duval. The 41-year former world No 1, who has not won a tournament since the 2001 Open, took to Twitter after missing the cut and struggling through rounds of eight-over-par 78 and even-par 70.

"You never know who came to watch you play that day. How far they drove or from where they flew. That's part of why I never quit," Duval tweeted. There was more. "Illness or injury are the only reasons not to finish your round. As a pro you should always post your score. Bad days and bad scores are part of golf. Don't tee off if your ego can't take it." Duval had to return to the social media site to explain that he was talking about himself and not Rory. But the comparison was impossible to ignore. "I am not in any way digging on Rory," he tweeted. "Please don't take it that way. I believe he would finish if he could."

It was left to McIlroy's long-time pal Graeme McDowell to bring some sanity to the proceedings. "I'm sure the guy has a lot on his mind," McDowell said. "When you start trying to prove things to other people and you stop playing for yourself it is a very dangerous place to be.

"He is playing to prove things to you guys [the media], playing to the naysayers and people who said he shouldn't have done what he has done. Everyone is saying he can't do it with Nike equipment.

"It is early in the season. He's rusty. He is a superstar, a global superstar at that. The pressure can only be magnified. But he will get over it.

"Once he starts believing in himself again he will be back. To me he is not swinging the club the way he was late summer last year. You don't write that kid off. He has got the X-factor and he will be OK."

McIlroy is due in Miami next week for the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He has a press conference scheduled for Tuesday morning where he will have to explain in rather more detail what the heck was he thinking when he walked off the course mid-round last Friday.

He's a smart lad and his charm and honesty will no doubt save the day. But it might also help his cause if he turns up with his head bandaged like an outpatient in Carry On Doctor.

Meanwhile, back at the tournament, Lee Westwood and Justin Rose will try to chase the unheralded American leaders Luke Guthrie and Michael Thompson today. Westwood is two strokes behind at six under par while Rose is four under par in a pack including Geoff Ogilvy, Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley.

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