Frustrated McIlroy walks off course at Honda

Whether his pain was mental or dental, Rory McIlroy walked off
the course in the middle of his round Friday at the Honda Classic
and invited even more scrutiny of golf’s No. 1 player.

McIlroy already was 7-over par through eight holes when he hit
his second shot into the water on the par-5 18th and didn’t bother
hitting another shot. He shook hands with Ernie Els and Mark
Wilson, turned in his scorecard and walked straight to the parking
lot.

McIlroy told three reporters who followed him that he’s ”not in
a good place mentally.”

An hour later, his management company issued a statement that
the 23-year-old McIlroy couldn’t concentrate because of a sore
wisdom tooth.

His abrupt departure only added to the sloppy start to his young
season, and raised concerns with the Masters just more than a month
away. In three tournaments, he has missed the cut in Abu Dhabi,
lost in the first round of the Match Play Championship and withdrew
after 26 holes at PGA National.

”His demeanor looks a little different,” said Graeme McDowell,
one of his best friends. ”I felt like he was a little off with his
golf swing on the range. There were a few moans and groans coming
from the bay next to me. It’s normally a display. It’s normally a
clinic. It’s superlatives coming from the coach and the caddie.
That’s the sign of a guy who’s lacking a little technique in his
swing and a little belief in his game.”

In the parking lot, McIlroy was asked three times if anything
was wrong physically and he said no. Golfweek magazine reported he
was near tears.

”There’s not really much I can say, guys,” McIlroy said. ”I’m
not in a good place mentally, you know?”

Els also hit into the water on the 18th and was complaining to a
rules official about the muddy conditions of the fairway when he
figured out McIlroy was through.

”I was dropping my ball and I realized he wasn’t dropping his
ball,” Els said. ”I thought maybe his ball crossed further up
(the hazard). When I hit my fourth shot, he just came up and said,
`Here’s my card. I’m out of here.”’

McIlroy, who last year won the Honda Classic to go to No. 1 in
the world for the first time, apologized to the tournament for his
”sudden withdrawal.”

”I have been suffering with a sore wisdom tooth, which is due
to come out in the near future,” McIlroy said. ”It began
bothering me again last night, 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 had begun to affect my
playing partners.”

He was seen eating a sandwich on the 18th fairway.

”I’m a great fan of Rory’s, but I don’t think that was the
right thing to do,” Els said.

Told about McIlroy’s statement about the sore wisdom tooth, Els
softened his stance, not wanting to judge another player’s
pain.

”I didn’t see anything, but if he had a toothache, that’s what
it is, you know?” Els said. ”Hey, it’s tough. If you ask him how
he’s feeling now, he’s obviously feeling terrible for what’s
happened this morning.”

”I didn’t notice anything,” Wilson said. ”He wasn’t playing
the way the world No. 1 plays normally. Didn’t hit the ball where
he wanted to, and he’s a true gentleman, though. He … wasn’t
treating Ernie and myself in a different way. He was upset with his
golf and I guess he had enough for the week.”

Tiger Woods understand better than anyone in golf what it’s like
to have every move judged, though for Woods it started not long
after he turned pro in 1996.

”You’ve just got to … think about it a little bit more before
you say something or do something,” Woods said. ” 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 as saying that, even
though the intent was different.”

McIlroy, coming off a year in which he won a second major with a
record, already set himself up for scrutiny when he left Titleist
to sign an equipment deal with Nike that was said to be worth
upward of $20 million a year. Instead of taking a long winter
break, he spent much of December trying to adjust to his new clubs.
McIlroy said Tuesday it wasn’t the clubs; his swing was out of
sorts.

”I’m sure the guy has got a lot on his mind,” McDowell said.
”When you start trying to prove things to other people and you
stop playing for yourself, it’s a dangerous place to be. … Any
player would have did what he’s done with regard to the equipment
change. He’s one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen. Once
he starts believing in himself, he’ll be back.”

McIlroy won the PGA Championship by a record eight shots last
year, making him the youngest player since Seve Ballesteros in 1980
to win two majors. McIlroy won the U.S. Open in 2011 by eight shots
with a record score.

Nike introduced him with blaring music and a laser show in Abu
Dhabi, but it’s been all downhill from there.

After rounds of 75-75 in Abu Dhabi, he took a four-week break
and spent time with tennis girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. He was
eliminated at Match Play in a sloppy performance by both of them.
McIlroy returned to Florida and played 36 holes with Woods at The
Medalist.

He said on Tuesday that it was no time to panic so early in the
season.

”Even though my results haven’t revealed it, I really felt like
I was rounding a corner,” McIlroy said. ”This is one of my
favorite tournaments of the year and I regret having to make the
decision to withdraw, but it was one I had to make.”

It looked more like McIlroy was sinking than rounding the
corner, not difficult to do on a course with so many water hazards.
And he found plenty of them.

McIlroy, who opened with a 70, hit two poor chips that led to
double bogey on No. 11, and a wild tee shot to the right led to a
bogey on the 13th. His round really unraveled on the par-4 16th,
when he hit his tee shot to the right and into the water, took a
penalty drop and then came up short of the green and into the water
again on his way to a triple bogey. He three-putted from 40 feet on
the 17th, running his first putt about 10 feet by the hole, for a
bogey to go 7 over.

And then came the approach on the 18th that found water for the
third time on his short day.

McIlroy is scheduled to play next week in the Cadillac
Championship at Doral, which has no cut, and then the Houston Open.
But on the first day of March, he left having completed only round
of competition.

”I didn’t think much of the equipment change. We’ve all made
equipment changes before,” said Els, who has used three brands of
clubs to win majors. ”I think there was a bit of criticism
somewhere, and then I think he’s further responding to that, and I
think he’s got a bit of pressure coming on him that way. I thought
he played quite well yesterday. I thought he was pretty close to
playing good golf, and unfortunately this morning … hopefully he
gets it together. We’ve got next week, got four rounds there. Such
a talented player. He’ll get it figured out.”

Geoff Ogilvy always preached caution about rushing to judgment
of Boy Wonder. A year ago, McIlroy missed the cut in four out of
five tournaments, including the U.S. Open. He won four times from
August to November, including the PGA and two FedEx Cup playoff
events.

”Everyone is being a little hard on the equipment,” Ogilvy
said. ”He has a plan. He had a plan last year, and it all worked
out for him. He had a rubbish year, really, until late summer. In
May, everyone was throwing him under the bus and everyone was
claiming him at the end of the year.

”He’ll probably go win the Masters by eight and we’ll all go,
`He knew what he was doing.’ ”

It was the second straight year one of golf’s biggest stars
failed to finish a tournament on the Florida swing. Woods withdrew
after 11 holes on the final round at Doral last year because of
tightness in his Achilles tendon, raising questions about the
seriousness of his recurring leg injuries. He won Bay Hill two
weeks later.