- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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In Holywood, County Down, the one-stoplight town where Rory McIlroy was born and raised, there is no outrage, no condemnation over his decision to quit midround because of a toothache. (Or a golf swing in extreme pain -- take your pick.)
"I wouldn't be commenting on another person and judging anybody," said Valerie Skinner, on the phone from her bakery on Holywood's High Street, where you can still order cookies with McIlroy's smiling face on them. "He's a normal person like anybody else."
This is true … to a point. McIlroy still has a lot of small-town Northern Ireland in him. He is the 23-year-old son of blue-collar parents, Gerry and Rosie. His humility and the easy-going charm of someone who doesn't take himself too seriously have always been his strengths. And until Friday at the Honda Classic, when he walked off the course and offered conflicting reasons that still don't add up, his reputation didn't have a smudge mark.
But it does now.
There is nothing normal about the demands and responsibilities of being the world's No. 1-ranked player. There is nothing normal about getting money-whipped by Nike to change equipment and join Tiger Woods atop the endorsement mountaintop. And let's face it, nobody else in Holywood has dated the former world's No. 1-ranked tennis player, Caroline Wozniacki.
This is the career McIlroy chose, and with it comes a certain forfeiture of normalcy. Woods gave his up some 17 years ago, and since then, his every move, comment and gesture have been microanalyzed like evidence at a CSI lab.
"But also this is a slightly different era, as well," Woods said to reporters after his Friday round at the Honda Classic. "It's even faster than what it was when I came out [on tour]. Things are instantaneous around the world. We were still in fax machines; things were a little bit slower."
They aren't anymore. Across the pond, McIlroy's credibility and image took an instant kneecapping. Karl MacGinty, writing in the Irish Independent, called McIlroy's walk-off "the low point of his stellar career."
In other words, lower than the 2011 Masters, when McIlroy entered the final round leading by 4 strokes, only to melt under the majors heat lamp. He shot 80 that day and finished 10 shots behind the winner, Charl Schwartzel.
The headline on James Corrigan's column in the London-based Telgraph reads: "Petulant Act of Walking Off at Honda Classic Strips Golf's Golden Boy and World No. 1 of His Halo."
Meanwhile, in the London-based Independent, the controversy earned this headline: "Teething Problems for Rory McIlroy."
Can you imagine if Woods had done what McIlroy did Friday: quit eight-plus holes into his second round -- a round in which McIlroy was already 7 over par, headed for a nine-hole score of 44ish and almost certain to miss the cut? Woods would have been ripped into confetti strips by his critics.
McIlroy is taking a public relations hit, to be sure. The defending Honda champion quit in the middle of a disastrous round, said he was in "a bad place mentally," made no mention of any injury (echoed by his management company), but then later issued a statement saying he couldn't continue because of pain related to his wisdom teeth? A photo of him biting on a sandwich shortly before his departure doesn't help, either.
England's Brian Davis withdrew from Honda after his first-round 78 and nobody cared. But McIlroy isn't nobody. He's Tiger Woods' successor, which means he had better be prepared for this sort of ultrascrutiny.
McIlroy grew up in Holywood with a poster of Woods on his bedroom wall. He had a copy of Woods' scorecard from the 1997 Masters, when Tiger blowtorched the field. As a kid, he would sign his scorecards, "Rory Nick Faldo McIlroy," in honor of the Masters and Open champion.
Golf success isn't a surprise to McIlroy. But understanding his fame seems to be a work in progress for him.
Woods won a U.S. Open on one leg. McIlroy didn't finish Honda's second round because of a toothache. That sort of thing doesn't go over well.
McIlroy is now 17 over for the 80 holes he has played in 2013. His mouth hurts. His confidence hurts. And his swing is in triage.
At the Paddy Power betting shop in Holywood, his odds to win next month's Masters have gone from 9-2 a few months ago to 9-1 before the Honda debacle to something soon in the 12-1 range, said shop manager James Carew.
"Has his popularity changed here?" Carew said. "Hasn't changed, no. He'll be back, don't worry. It's just a matter of time. When you have that much class, you come back."
McIlroy first needs to find a dentist, then his mojo. He also needs to remember lessons learned by Woods in his reign as the best player on the planet: Everything gets blown out of proportion. Little mistakes become medium sized, large mistakes become mushroom clouds.
Valerie Skinner the baker is right -- now isn't the time to judge McIlroy. He screwed up. He used up one of his benefits of the doubt.
But he'll learn. And if he doesn't, he'll lose more than his reputation. He'll lose Holywood.
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