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Friday, March 1, 2013
Updated: March 4, 10:12 AM ET
Rough road ahead for Rory McIlroy

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- His tooth might truly be aching, but the beating Rory McIlroy is going to take over walking off the golf course Friday will hurt far more. Nothing looks worse than quitting.

That is the position the world's No. 1 golfer put himself in at the Honda Classic, where a triple-bogey, double-bogey and two bogeys had the out-of-form McIlroy packing up his bag and heading to the parking lot, a stunning midround surrender that will be tough to live down.

His swing looks off, his lucrative endorsement deal with Nike and switching clubs are being questioned, and now he has a grand total of four rounds plus eight lousy holes under his belt this year. Golf can be cruel, and McIlroy is suffering through a downtime, a part of the game but magnified because of his stature.

McIlroy, 23, had hit his approach into the water at the 18th hole, his ninth of the day Friday, played his next toward the green and then decided to head to his home in nearby Jupiter. In a brief exchange with reporters who chased him to the parking lot at PGA National, McIlroy said he was "not in a good place mentally," never mentioning the wisdom tooth issue that was later explained as the reason for his withdrawal.

There was little wisdom in that.

PGA Tour rules require a medical excuse for a player to bail on a tournament, and McIlroy offered one up, saying he had a painful tooth that affected his concentration. He also suggested his poor play was affecting playing partners Ernie Els and Mark Wilson.

A representative from his management firm, Horizon Sports, first said: "He's not hurt, he's not sick, and he won't answer his phone."

Then came the wisdom tooth announcement, of which Els knew nothing until told by reporters.

"It's unfortunate," Els said. "I'm a great fan of Rory's, but I don't think that was the right thing to do."

Upon learning that McIlroy later said through the PGA Tour that he had a toothache, Els backtracked.

"Obviously something was seriously bothering him, and he was not going to make the cut and probably didn't want to continue playing that way," Els said. "I've played like that before. It's embarrassing. You don't want to be out there while you feel like that, get me out of here."

The inclination is to give McIlroy the benefit of the doubt, despite the circumstances. He's a good guy, great for the game, accommodating, talented and highly accomplished at such a young age.

But McIlroy is clearly hurting at the moment, perhaps physically and mentally. He had made a double-bogey at the 11th hole, his second of the day. He hit two balls in the water on the 16th hole, added another bogey at the 17th and hit his second shot in the water on the 18th.

Before finishing No. 18, he walked over to Els and Wilson to say he was withdrawing, then headed for the parking lot and the short drive home.

"I didn't notice anything," Wilson said. "He wasn't playing the way the world No. 1 plays normally. Didn't hit the ball where he wanted to, and he's a true gentleman, though. It's not like he was treating Ernie and myself in a different way. He was upset with his golf, and I guess he had enough for the week."

While bringing into question whether he gave up, there is no denying the facts about McIlroy.

His stroke play rounds this year are 75-75-70-WD, with a first-round loss last week at the WGC-Accenture Match Play where his medal score would have been 75. That would put him approximately 13-over-par for rounds he has played in competition.

The focus will be on the Nike clubs he switched to in January to big fanfare in Abu Dhabi, where he was introduced to strobe lights and music, the Grand Mosque in the background. It was quite the scene, and McIlroy spoke of how he loved the idea of being associated with such a global company, one associated with some of sports' biggest stars.

"Any player on the planet would have done what he's done in regards to the equipment change," said fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell. "I'm sure Nike's equipment is as good as what's out there. It's really just the hurdle of getting over playing for other people and back to playing for Rory McIlroy. He's one of the most talented players I've ever seen. Once he starts believing in himself again, he'll be back.

"To me, he's not swinging the club the way he was last summer. The right-to-left shape we're all so familiar with has gone to a little bit of a cut shot. I know he's worked hard on that shot; he just looks a little underneath it. It looks like the right side of the course is now in play for him. To me, it's not equipment, it's a little bit of technique, a little bit of belief in his own head."

McDowell acknowledged he's not seen much of McIlroy this year as their schedules have differed. But the two did happen to warm up near each other on the range Friday morning.

"It wasn't the normal display of flushery that we normally see," McDowell said. "I felt like he was a little off with his golf swing. There were a few moans and groans coming from the bay next to me. And that's not like him. It's normally a display. It's normally a clinic. Normally superlatives being thrown out from the coach and the caddie in the background. It was a little silent this morning. That, to me, is the sign of a guy lacking a little bit of belief in his game."

While the clubs are a big focus at the moment, he did have a stretch of poor form last summer with the old ones that seemingly had done so well for him. The reigning player of the year on both the PGA Tour and European Tour, McIlroy missed four cuts in five starts, including the U.S. Open.

There also is the issue of competitive golf. McIlroy played just the one tournament in Abu Dhabi and took a month off before playing one round at the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Fewer than 27 holes here leaves him in great need of more competitive golf. Next week's tournament at Doral offers four rounds without a cut, and he's scheduled to play the Shell Houston Open later this month.

Another nine holes, despite his pain and suffering, might have done him some good Friday. He could have shown some fight.

At the very least, it didn't look good to head home.