On Friday morning, by the time he reached the ninth hole of his second round, Rory McIlroy was, he said, "seeing red." His bottom right impacted wisdom tooth, which is being treated by his childhood dentist in Belfast, was causing him pain. His "out of sorts" swing was causing him more pain. His scorecard through eight holes—par, double bogey, par, bogey, par, par, triple bogey, bogey—was causing him the most pain. When his second shot on the 18th hole at PGA National, home course for the Honda Classic, settled in a pond, McIlroy's mind was overwhelmed with a single thought: "I don't want to be here."
And then he did something he soon regretted: He walked up to one of his playing partners, Ernie Els, handed him his scorecard, shook hands with him and his other playing partner, Mark Wilson, and told them he was done.
Professional golfers may not be the most macho athletes in the world, but for a golfer to quit in the middle of a round without a true medical emergency—and McIlroy, 23, acknowledges that he faced no true medical emergency on Friday—almost never happens. And for the quitting player to be the defending champion, the No. 1 player in the world and a golfer who has recently signed a Nike contract worth tens of millions of dollars? That has never happened.
"It was a reactive decision," McIlroy said in a 25-minute telephone interview on Sunday night, two hours after Michael Thompson won the Honda for his first Tour title (page G10). "What I should have done is take my drop, 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—it was not the right thing to do."
McIlroy knew better. In fact, he had been in a more dire situation 18 months earlier, at the 2011 PGA Championship. On the 3rd hole of his first round at the Atlanta Athletic Club, he strained a tendon in his right wrist after playing a shot from off a tree root. Yet he soldiered on for 69 more holes and a 64th-place finish, bandaged wrist and all.
On Monday his Belfast dentist, Mark Conroy, faxed a letter to the PGA Tour offices describing McIlroy's condition with both of his lower wisdom teeth. McIlroy said he wore braces for a period last year in an effort to create separation for the two teeth, one of which he said was "growing sideways." He also said he has been prescribed a painkiller, which he did not use on Friday but will use as needed until he next sees Conroy, most likely after the U.S. Open in June. At that time, his lower right wisdom tooth is expected to be pulled.
But the root of Rory's Friday problems came not from his teeth but, when you get right down to it, his brain. McIlroy has a picture in his mind of what he wants his swing to look like, but making that swing happen is another thing altogether. He said the issue is not his new Nike clubs but the plane of his swing. Already in 2013 he has missed the cut in a January tournament in Abu Dhabi, where he played alongside his Nike stablemate Tiger Woods, he got knocked out of the first round of the Accenture Match Play outside Tucson last month and he played those eight ghastly holes at the Honda Classic in seven over par.
"The driver and the ball took some time to get used to, but I had weeks at Nike before the start of the year, and I feel comfortable with all the equipment," he said. "The problem is, I'm bringing the club too upright on the backswing then dropping it in too much on the downswing."
When McIlroy looks at the Nike ad in which he and Woods drop a series of driving-range shots into distant plastic cups, water glasses and champagne flutes, he sees a swing that is out of kilter. In golf, as in life, knowing what you want to do and actually doing it are two different things. But knowing what you want to do is often a good start.
On Friday, within a half hour of shaking hands with Els and Wilson, McIlroy knew that by quitting he had done the wrong thing. He drove to his home, in a gated development in Jupiter, with his instructor, Michael Bannon, and his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald. Soon after, he was joined by his parents, Rosie and Gerry, and by liaison Sean O'Flaherty, who works for Horizon Sports Management, the Dublin agency that represents McIlroy. Rory spoke by phone to his agent, Conor Ridge. "By the time I got home I was saying, 'We need to reassess here,'" McIlroy said. The drive home was about 15 minutes.
A statement from McIlroy, including an apology to Honda Classic fans and sponsors, was quickly forwarded to a PGA Tour communications official. That afternoon Bannon and McIlroy went to the range at the Bear's Club, which was founded by Jack Nicklaus and counts McIlroy among its members. "We looked at tape from when I was 16," McIlroy said, "and that's the swing I'm trying to get back to."
He and Ridge talked several times over the weekend. McIlroy also spoke regularly to his girlfriend, tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. McIlroy told Ridge he wasn't reading any of the commentary about his withdrawal and that he was staying off Twitter. "Whatever people are saying, I probably already said to myself," McIlroy said.
In an interview Ridge said he was not surprised to see McIlroy take ownership of his misstep. "You learn more from the hard times than the good times," he said. In the grand scheme of things these are not hard times. But in the charmed life of Rory McIlroy, they are. This week McIlroy is scheduled to play in the World Golf Championship event at Doral.
In personality and in terms of life goals, McIlroy and Woods could not be more different. But McIlroy has made a close study of Woods all his life, and in the past year or so he and Woods have played a lot of golf together.
"He might be the best athlete ever, in terms of his ability to grind it out," McIlroy said on Sunday night. "I could have a bit more of that, if I'm honest."
For Michael Bamberger's analysis of the ongoing anchored-putting debate between the USGA and the PGA Tour, go to GOLF.com/news
The Honda generated quality golf, an out-of-nowhere winner and the annual buzz that the Masters is just around the corner
Spring came early this year, on the last day of February, which also happened to be the first day of the Honda. In the real-life version (not the virtual one) of PGA Tour '13, Kapalua (crazy wind) and San Diego (crazy fog) and Tucson (crazy snow) are all in the Tour van's rearview mirror and fading fast. The Florida Swing is here, baby.
By Sunday an appealing mix of brand-name pros (like runner-up Geoff Ogilvy) and wet-eared newbies (like first-time Tour winner Michael Thompson) were on the big board at PGA National. It was cool and breezy for most of the week, and for the finale especially so. It was spring.
If you broke par in that fourth round—Thompson shot a final-round one-under 69 and a nine-under 271 total to win by two—you had played world-class golf. The ponds sneering at you on every hole on the Champion course can turn any round into a flat-out slog. No matter. It was all good. We're on the road to Augusta now.
This week the fellas gather down the road at Doral, at a resort now under the watchful eye of golf impresario Donald Trump. Then Tampa, where Retief Goosen makes his annual signal that he still plays tournament golf. From there to Bay Hill, the southernmost locale in the Kingdom of Arnold. Then two stops in Texas. And then the Masters. There it is, your road to Augusta.
The Honda is played at the PGA of America headquarters just off the Florida Turnpike in Palm Beach Gardens. It's in the heart of golf country. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy live nearby, among scores of other people in the game, including Rees Jones, the course architect. Jones made the point last week that the new golf year has been mired in messy things, at the expense of the joy the game is meant to provide. You know the litany. Vijay Singh and deer-antler spray. The anchored-putting debate. Too much talk about money, Phil's tax rate and Rory's Nike deal, most notably. Rory's Friday walk-off.
But in the end the Honda constituted a happy nod toward spring and the true start of a new golf season. Professional golf, you may not know, has a two-man spring welcoming committee, and it was on hand at the Honda. Scott Michaux and David Westin of The Augusta Chronicle were making the rounds at the Honda, gathering string for the dozens of Masters preview stories their paper will require.
Thompson already has a spot in the Masters, by virtue of his second-place tie at the U.S. Open last year. Ogilvy is not yet in, but his second-place Honda finish moved him up to 47th in the World Golf Ranking, and the top 50 on that list as of April 8 receive an invite. Ogilvy's play at the Honda did get him into Doral, so that should help.
"The Tour starts the first week in January in Maui, but there's a distinct we're-getting-right-into-the-season when you get to Florida," Ogilvy said on Sunday night. He was wearing a cardigan and striped socks, and even after his toils in the March winds, he was looking very fresh. "This is my first week of the year."
Photograph by DAVID WALBERG
FEEL THE PAIN McIlroy was seven over par through eight holes last Friday when he withdrew from the Honda, later citing an aching wisdom tooth for his woes.
STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES (MCILROY)
OUT OF WHACK McIlroy recently undertook a high-profile equipment change, but he insists his problems are the result of a flawed swing.
STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES
UPON FURTHER REVIEW Not long after bidding adieu to Els, McIlroy says he knew he should have kept grinding, "even if I shot 85."
Photograph by DAVID WALBERG
SEEING GREEN Thompson already had an invitation to the Masters in hand when he picked up his first PGA Tour victory, while Ogilvy (below) took a major step toward getting back to Augusta.