World No.1 Rory McIlroy stunned spectators at the Honda Classic when, close to tears, he quit the tournament after playing the first eight holes of his second round in seven over par.
He hit his second shot to the 18th green (his ninth hole) into the water, took a penalty drop, chipped on to the green then walked away without putting out, stopping only to shake hands with his playing partners Ernie Els and Mark Wilson before being escorted by police officers to a blue BMW courtesy car and heading for the exit of the PGA National golf club. “Can’t really say much, guys,” he said before driving to his home 10 minutes away. “Just not in a good place mentally.” His caddie J P Fitzgerald said McIlroy was not injured. And with that brief explanation, which was ripe for speculation, golf’s new Elvis left the building. The defending champion was gone.
So, what’s the story, no morning glory for Rory? He was hoping to find an oasis in Florida after floundering in the desert of Tucson, Arizona last week and Abu Dhabi in January. "He's not hurt. He's not sick. And he won't answer his phone. I don't know," said a representative from his management company. Was it the new Nike clubs, then? Or swing problems that he alluded to after a first round even par 70? Perhaps a family illness. Or girlfriend trouble. The answer came one hour after he had driven out through the gates. Toothache. Toothache? “I sincerely apologise to the Honda Classic and the PGA Tour for my sudden withdrawal,” came the statement from McIlroy released by his management company. “I have been suffering with a sore wisdom tooth which is due to come out in the near future. It began bothering me again 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 begun to affect my playing partners. I came here with every intention of defending my title. Even though my results haven’t revealed it, I really felt I was rounding a corner. This is one of my favourite tournaments of the year and I regret having to make a decision to withdraw but it was one I had to make.”
McIlroy now has 14 days to submit written evidence to the PGA Tour’s chief executive Tim Finchem to support his reason for withdrawal. It’s golf’s equivalent of the school kid presenting a note from his mum saying the dog really did eat his homework.
Shortly after this statement, McIlroy tweeted: “Apologies to all at the Honda. A tough day made impossible by severe tooth pain. Was desperate to defend title but couldn’t play on. Gutted.” It won’t have done this shaggy tooth story any good that McIlroy was photographed standing on the 18 fairway chewing a sandwich. He may also regret tweeting on Thursday night: “Having a great dinner celebrating my mum’s birthday!”
On Tuesday, a chirpy McIlroy held court playing keepy-uppy with a wedge and a golf ball at a cocktail party to announce a sponsorship deal with electronics company Bose. The joke circulating the range here was that Rory is really going to need those noise-reduction headphones now. After a first round even par 70 McIlroy was looking and sounding more chippy than chirpy. He defended his clubs and putter, blamed his swing and felt “there is something in the mid-60s out there.” But his behaviour and body language on the course told a different story. He was frustrated, hang dog, huffing and puffing, blowing his cheeks out, shaking his head and pursing his lips like he was sucking a lemon as drives missed fairways, irons missed greens and putts came up short of the hole. He sure didn’t look like he was in a good place mentally, as he cited on his withdrawal. Then there was yesterday’s capitulation on the back nine, his first nine, that included a double bogey, a triple bogey and two bogeys in eight holes that left him stranded at tied 137 of 142 competitors.
Both of McIlroy’s playing partners, Els and Wilson, said the Northern Irishman didn’t mention his increasing molar madness. “Toothache, eh?” Els said. “That’s not fun. Hey, listen, if something was bothering him, you know, it was bothering him and all credit to him trying to play through whatever pain he was in. He obviously couldn't do it after nine holes anymore.” While showing sympathy, Els also criticised McIlroy’s decision to quit. “I’m a big fan of Rory’s but I don’t think it was the right thing to do,” said Els, a former World No.1. “He’s feeling terrible about it, I know he is,” Els said. “That's the last thing he wants to do is walk off. I've played like that before. It's embarrassing. You don't want to be out there while you feel like, get me out of here. I've been around a long but I don’t recall walking off.”
With the WGC-Cadillac Championship next week along the coast at Miami, and just 42 days to the Masters at Augusta, the scrutiny of the World No.1’s state of mind and swing will ratchet up yet another level of intensity “Unfortunately, it seems like it's building now,” Els said. “I didn't think much of the equipment change. We've all made changes before. He's got a bit of pressure coming on him that way. I thought he played quite well yesterday (Thursday). He’s such a talented player, he'll get it figured out.”
McIlroy is now 17 over par for 80 holes in 2013. That’s enough to give anyone toothache. There is of course the possibility that McIlroy was misheard before he headed for the sanctuary of his Florida home. Maybe he said “Just not in a good place dentally.”