PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — First of all, Rory McIlroy should have finished the 18th hole and moved on to the front nine. He should have posted a score for 36 holes, even though he was going to miss the cut at the Honda Classic with miles to spare.
There are only two acceptable reasons for a PGA Tour player to quit in the middle of a round: a true emergency or your play is so poor that it is a distraction to your playing partners, and that is almost never the case. Professional golfers are way too self-absorbed to let that happen. The point is, embarrassment is not an acceptable excuse.
In walking off the course on Friday, while playing with Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, McIlroy showed that for all his sophistication—dinner at the White House and all that—he is still 23, at times a young 23. He nearly missed his tee time on the last day of the Ryder Cup because he overslept.
In a tweet on Friday, McIlroy wrote that was “gutted.” The Northern Irishman/Nike global ambassador meant that as we might use “filleted.” No defending champion—McIlroy won Honda last year in a thriller over Tiger Woods—playing with new clubs worth tens of millions of dollars wants to quit while he is playing his 27th hole. Especially when your parents are around. And you’re playing with a Hall of Famer. And you’re sleeping at home. And your agent and counselor (Conor Ridge) is in a Dublin maternity ward tending to his wife.
In the PGA National parking lot, McIlroy told three reporters (I was not among them), "There's not really much I can say, guys. I'm not in a good place mentally, you know?"
That sounds like a truthful statement. (A quick shout-out to shoe-leather reporting in this age of reporting-by-internet.) But not being in a good place mentally is not an acceptable reason to withdraw from a golf tournament. Particularly when you are the defending champion and the No. 1 player in the world.
That brief comment came at about 9:45 a.m. McIlroy then drove directly to his home in Jupiter where he met with his publicist from Horizon Sports Management, Sean O’Flaherty. At 10:40, O’Flaherty called a Tour communications official with a statement from McIlroy, in which he apologized for his sudden withdrawal. He said he was unable to concentrate because of a “very painful” wisdom tooth. A sore wisdom tooth is not an acceptable reason to withdraw from a golf tournament.
He implied in his statement that his poor play “had begun to affect my playing partners.”While noting nothing another player does impacts his game, Wilson, among the most even-tempered of men, said: “He wasn’t affecting us one bit.” Els, who went on a private profane tirade after one poor putt and complained loudly to a rules official about a mud ball, said, “I’m a great fan of Rory’s, but I don’t think that was the right thing to do.”
On Tuesday night, in a ballroom at PGA National, there was a semi-swanky party (bottled beer; cheesy things served on a tray) to introduce McIlroy as a spokesman for Bose, unofficial headphone provider to globe-trotting athletes everywhere. McIlroy’s parents were there, and so was RMac, in dungarees and a button-front shirt, tails out, mouse in. He’s a nice kid, he really is, and he was his regular charming self that night.
The evening began with a video montage of McIlroy, various shots of the young golfer stamped with the word TRUE. Rory is true to his game, to his fans, to his parents, to his charities. Unspoken, of course, is that he is true to his sponsors.
What a ridiculous way to promote Rory McIlroy or anybody else for that matter. Did these people not learn anything from the life and times of Tiger Woods? Nobody should be saddled with such unrealistic expectations. Els figured out for us what you probably already knew: McIlroy quit because he was ashamed of the way he was playing, and he couldn’t take it anymore. “I’ve played that way before,” Els said. “It’s embarrassing.” Els could not remember ever walking off a course during a tournament because of his poor play.
Credibility is important in life and in golf. I’ve brought this up before, but I think it’s an important moment in the education of a golfer, and now it seems more important. In 2009, McIlroy was playing in his first Masters. In the third round, on the 18thhole, he failed to get a shot out of a greenside bunker. Although his ball was still in his trap, he kicked the sand.
Maybe this is a stupid rule, but it’s a rule nonetheless: If you kick the sand out of anger that’s considered testing, and it’s a two-shot penalty. If you’re simply smoothing the sand, you’re fine. On Saturday night, Augusta rules officials called in McIlroy to ask him to explain what he did. If he had kicked the sand in anger, he would have been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. He said he was simply smoothing the sand. They chose to believe him. He was 19. Maybe he needed a little tough love then. On Friday, he got it from Els and Wilson.
Go to the homepage of the Horizon website and you'll see beautiful images of McIlroy and his stablemate, Graeme McDowell. The pictures are accompanied by a quote from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”
I like to think the true Rory McIlroy is the one who shot 80 on Sunday at Augusta in 2011 when 69 would have won him a green jacket, and he stood up and answered every question like a golfer, and like a man. That’s the way you do it, kid.