Why Rory McIlroy Is Facing Toughest Challenge of His Career

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2013

PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL - MARCH 01:  World number one and defending champion, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland walks off the course on the 18th hole, his nineth during the second round of the Honda Classic on March 1, 2013 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy is no longer golf's golden boy.

He is still recognized as golf's top player, but a few warts have surfaced along with a question or two about his character.

When McIlroy walked off the course at the Honda Classic last week at the midway point of his second round, there were a lot of wide-eyed stares.

Sure, McIlroy was having a terrible round—seven over par on the front nine—but great golfers don't quit in the middle of their rounds because they are embarrassed.

McIlroy said as much a couple of days later to Sports Illustrated, but it's not about hearing the criticism and coming to the conclusion that he made a mistake.

It's about buckling down and doing the right thing on the golf course in the first place.

McIlroy has unquestioned ability. He may have as much talent as Tiger Woods. He may be a better golfer than Woods at this point in his career. He may be the game's best symbol as well as its No. 1 player.

If that's the case, he has to carry himself like a champion even on days he is not playing like one.

In addition to pulling out of the Honda Classic—he said he was in pain due to problems with his wisdom teeth—McIlroy was nearly late to his tee time on the final day of competition in the Ryder Cup last fall (source: NYTimes.com).

That factor helps paint the picture that succeeding and dominating in golf may not be his priorities.

McIlroy will get his first opportunity to reverse that image when he tees off this week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in Miami.

McIlroy has expressed regret over his behavior. That may have more to do with his intelligence and ability to recognize a mistake than his desire to be a top golfer.

Just because he has spectacular ability, was the tour's leading money winner last year and has won major tournaments in back-to-back years doesn't mean he wants to be at the top of the golf world.

It takes work, effort and commitment, and the proof will come if he can string together great seasons  like the great players who have preceded him. If golf commentators and analysts are talking about McIlroy in seven years the way they talk about Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods, he will have demonstrated his desire and work ethic.

If the conversation is about golfers who could have risen to the top but somehow didn't and McIlroy is in that conversation, the chances are that he will have caused his own downfall.

It's up to him, and he faces the toughest challenge of his career. It starts when he tees off at Doral and will continue for the next several years.

Proving true greatness is the most difficult of challenges.