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. “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.”