Rory has some soul-searching to do

Parents tell their kids that it’s always better to own up to their mistakes, that trying to cover them up with lies will only make things worse.

Kids, however, sometimes have to learn these truths for themselves.

Rory McIlroy is still only 23 — still figuring out what it means to be Rory — and he learned both ends of that ethics lesson last Friday, when he walked off the course mid-round at the Honda Classic in exasperation at his poor play, then later blamed the impolitic exit on an aching wisdom tooth.

That excuse might have flown had it not been for the fact that he three times told reporters there was nothing physically bothering him — that instead he was "in a bad place, mentally" — and that he’d been seen chomping on a sandwich not long before.

McIlroy was — appropriately — roundly condemned throughout the sports world, as much for the sad attempt at covering his behind as for a petulant act of a defending champion quitting mid-round.

By Sunday night, a remorseful McIlroy — who was (gently) scolded by no less an authority than Jack Nicklaus — told Sports Illustrated that he regretted his mistake.

"It was not the right thing to do," the slumping world No. 1 conceded to SI in an interview published on Monday.

"What I should have done is take my drop (after hitting his second into the water on his ninth hole), chip it on, try to make a five and play my hardest on the back nine, even if I shot 85.

"What I did was not good for the tournament, not good for the kids and the fans who were out there watching me."

Although he does have an existing problem with two wisdom teeth — his dentist in Northern Ireland, who will remove one of them in June, faxed a letter to the PGA Tour outlining the issues — McIlroy acknowledged that it wasn’t a medical emergency.

For that, he is sure to face fines from the Tour.

But he only needs money to pay those.

Repairing his battered image won’t come so cheaply.

Cynics will say McIlroy went to Sports Illustrated with his mea culpa to try to control the message and take the edge off his pre-tournament news conference at the Cadillac Championship this week.

McIlroy had been scheduled to face journalists on Tuesday morning at Doral but pushed it back to Wednesday.

He’s still going to be squirming in his chair on Wednesday, but the questions will be easier to deal with now than if he’d maintained silence.

In the end, the story will blow over and McIlroy will probably get a pass for an action done clearly in the heat of the moment; at a time when he was, he says, "seeing red."

But he’s going to have to find some peace within himself because the factors that caused this sorry episode haven’t gone anywhere.

Graeme McDowell, who at 33 is like an older brother to McIlroy, not only wasn’t surprised by his compatriot’s withdrawal, but said it was "only a matter of time."

"He’s a well-grounded kid from a sort of mediocre background, in the sense his parents didn’t have a lot of wealth," McDowell was quoted as saying over the weekend.

"He kind of skyrockets into the [upper] echelon by becoming the No. 1 player in the world, signing the biggest [endorsement] deal in world golf, becoming the most marketable player in the world.

"It’s a lot do deal with for a young kid.

"He’s surprised me a lot the last couple years, how he’s taken this in stride, winning two major championships [and] becoming the world’s No. 1 player.

"[But] something’s gotta give."

More importantly, McDowell thinks McIlroy feels pressure to justify the mega-deal — of at least $100 million — he signed with Nike.

Given McIlroy’s horrendous start to the season — a missed cut, first-round loss at the Match Play and an ugly WD — several golf insiders have pointed the finger of blame at the Nike equipment.

That’s only put more pressure on McIlroy, who insists the problem is his swing, not his clubs, to prove them wrong.

"When you start trying to prove things to other people and you stop playing for yourself, it is a very dangerous place to be," McDowell said.

"He is playing to prove things to you guys [the media], playing to the naysayer and people who said he shouldn’t have done what he has done.

"Everyone is saying he can’t do it with Nike equipment. This game is an extremely difficult sport, especially when you start playing for other people."

The answer, as it always is in golf, is to play better.

"He’ll be back," McDowell said, suggesting it could even come this week. "He goes and shoots 65 in the first round [at Doral] and away we go.

"Rory’s back, baby."