Rory McIlroy looks like he gets it

In the end, it was just like a visit to the dentist.

Rory McIlroy wasn’t exactly looking forward to facing the media Wednesday morning to deliver a mea culpa on his mid-round withdrawal at last week’s Honda Classic and ill-advised attempt to blame it on a toothache.

But, like a trip to the dentist, after the drilling, he felt better.

“I regret what I did,” said a contrite McIlroy, who admitted that his wisdom tooth, while sore, really didn’t bother him enough to quit.

“There’s no excuse for quitting and it doesn’t set a good example for the kids watching me, trying to emulate what I do.

“I feel like I let a lot of people down with what I did last week and for that, I am very sorry.”

If nothing else, it was refreshing to hear an apology from an athlete that didn’t begin with: “If I have offended anyone …”.

You’re either sorry or you’re sorry that someone else thinks you should be sorry.

McIlroy’s genuinely sorry and hopes the world will forgive him.

I’d imagine it will, but the 23-year-old wasn’t so sure late on Tuesday night, when he was huddled with his advisers in the bar at Doral.

They were brainstorming a way to take the edge off a press conference they felt could quickly grow thorny.

The obvious strategy was to say something humorous off the bat, which McIlroy did, ably assisted by his straight man in this routine, European Tour media official Michael Gibbons, who asked McIlroy to “go straight to the heart of the matter here … how disappointed were you with Manchester United’s score yesterday?”

“It was not a red card!” McIlroy responded about the controversial sending off of Nani, which probably cost his beloved United the Champions League tie against Real Madrid.

“But I give myself a red card.”

Boom, boom.

McIlroy was so intent on cleaning out his closet he also took the opportunity to address rumors that his struggles had their genesis in girlfriend troubles.

“I’ve read what’s been written,” he said. “Just because I have a bad day on the golf course and Caroline (Wozniacki) loses a match in Malaysia, it doesn’t mean that we’re breaking up.

“Everything on that front is great and I’m looking forward to seeing her next week when she gets to Miami.”

McIlroy conceded that he didn’t feel like continuing to play at the Honda Classic – where he was defending champion – after being eight over par through eight holes and rinsing his approach to his ninth hole.

But soon after walking off he “realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t the right thing to do."

“No matter how bad I was playing, I should have stayed out there,” he said. “I should have tried to shoot the best score possible even though it probably wasn’t going to be good enough to make the cut. At that point in time, I was just all over the place and, you know, I saw red.

“It was a mistake and everyone makes mistakes and I’m learning from them. … Some people have the pleasure of making mistakes in private. Most of my mistakes are in the public eye.”

Very true, but let’s hope he doesn’t feel sorry for himself about this because this is the life he chose when he was a boy: to be the next Tiger.

The question now is whether episodes like this will make McIlroy more like Tiger, who’s so suspicious of most journalists that if his cards were played any closer to his chest, they’d be tattoos.

“Look, we – as in me and all you guys – are hopefully going to have a working relationship for the next 20 years, so I don’t want to jeopardize that by being closed,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I’ve always been open and honest and given you guys all my thoughts. I don’t want it to be that way where there’s friction between me and the press.”

In truth, very few elite athletes have managed to maintain friendships with the journalists that cover them.

Eventually, they’ll not like something written and – being unable to distinguish personal criticism from criticism of a performance – that will be that.

McIlroy, though, has the potential to be one of the few because he is by nature a friendly young man who’s not disposed to holding grudges and doesn’t like confrontation.

Of course, he still has lessons to learn, about life and about golf.

Golf comes so easy to him that he takes it for granted.

The events that led up to Friday’s meltdown had their roots in the fact that he showed up unprepared in Abu Dhabi for his first tournament of the season, and his first after signing a mega-deal with Nike.

He expected to just pick up the new clubs and ball and continue from where he left off in 2012, when he had five wins — including a major.

But his swing wasn’t cooperating. The more recalcitrant his game, the more exasperated he became, the more desperate his urge to prove the naysayers wrong.

“I think it was a build-up of everything,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform and I’ve been working so hard and not really getting much out of it.

“It was a buildup of high expectations from myself coming off the back of such a great year last year and wanting to continue that form into this year and not being able to do it. I just sort of let it all get to me.”

Looking for silver linings, McIlroy said this whole sorry episode was “a blessing in disguise” because it reminded him of things he’d lost sight of.

“I started to play golf because I love it, I really do,” he said.

“It’s been my life for … well, it’s been my life for my life!

“I’m in a very privileged position. I get to play a game that I love for a living.

“I need to remember that.”

Team McIlroy won’t need too many late-night brainstorming sessions if that’s the prism through which he views his career.