When Rory McIlroy walked off the Champion Course at PGA National last week—forfeiting any chance of a repeat as the defending champion at the Honda Classic—he appeared frustrated, worn out and downright disgusted.
It was a new look for the world’s best golfer, known for his confident stride and carefree attitude on the golf course, a far cry from the pensive and troubled young man we were witnessing in action today.
Rory had just completed eight holes of golf I think I might have been able to beat. And at seven-over for the day, with more penalty strokes pending at his ninth hole (the 18th at PGA National), Rory told his playing companions, Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, that he was done for the day.
On his way out the door, so to speak, he told reporters there was nothing physically wrong, that he was just in a bad place mentally. Then, a couple hours later, he released a statement saying he withdrew from the tournament because of wisdom tooth pain that was affecting his concentration (h/t Golf Channel).
It was a confusing few hours for Rory’s fans, the media and golf enthusiasts in general. What was really wrong with the world’s No. 1 player? And what kind of message was he sending by walking off the golf course when there was absolutely no previous indication that anything was physically wrong with him? He never mentioned any tooth pain to Els or Wilson during their eight-plus holes together Friday. And when given the opportunity to explain himself en route to the parking lot, he denied any physical problem.
Was Rory so tired of playing bad golf that he just quit? My initial reaction was that he had done the wrong thing, that he had let his frustrations get the better of him. He should’ve kept playing, no matter how bad the end result might have been. Quitting was absolutely not the right thing to do in that situation.
Unless, of course, he was suffering from a pain in his mouth so severe he felt as though his head was going to explode. Then, I can understand the withdraw. We all have different tolerances for hurt and illness, so I can certainly sympathize.
That being said, I once witnessed Paula Creamer throwing up between shots at the 2010 Canadian Women’s Open—a victim of food poisoning or the flu or whatever it was—and she still finished her round. I told her I would not have been able to pull that off. More famously, Tiger Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg. There are many more examples of great athletes—in golf or in other sports—gutting it out when their body and/or mind wasn’t in a good place.
So, what’s up with Rory? Why couldn't he pull through nine more holes of golf with a toothache?
The questions and the specifics regarding his early departure last week remain, but one thing’s for certain—Rory McIlroy is finding out just how difficult it is to be the top ranked golfer in the world.
When the 2013 season began, Rory was ceremoniously announced as the newest member of the Nike Golf family. The lucrative deal confirmed a rumor that had been swirling for months prior to his debut at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. He made a quick exit there with opening rounds of 75-75. Then there was a month-long layoff before he was defeated in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. And that brought us to the Honda Classic and this rather bizarre turn of events.
To say the expectations were high for Rory in 2013—well, that’s a massive understatement. But along with the role of being No. 1 comes great responsibility. And Rory’s learning that. Undoubtedly, there are a myriad of outside distractions pulling him in all different directions. There are a lot of commitments that require his attention, commitments that weren’t in his life before he was No. 1. And let’s not forget that Rory McIlroy is human, even if he has appeared to be something other than that in playing golf better than anyone else in the world.
The fact remains that Rory has only played four-and-a-half rounds of competitive golf this year. He’s an incredibly talented young player—not to mention a really good kid—who will bounce back from this mere bump on his road to superstardom in the world of professional golf. I expect he’ll put all this behind him sooner rather than later and use it as motivation for showing everyone that he deserves to be No 1.