- If the tooth was an issue, why didn't he tell the reporters that? Waiting until later makes it look like prepared spin by handlers, based on plausible deniability.
- Is McIlroy fully comfortable with his new Nike clubs? The Swoosh gave him 200 million reasons to be happy, but his game doesn't reflect that.
- When will the prodigy return? The Masters is less than six weeks away, and McIlroy hasn't answered the alarm clock yet.
- Absent a real, urgent medical problem (as contrasted with just playing awfully), is there any good excuse for quitting a round after eight holes? There are plenty of 15-handicappers who can answer that question, at least.
As Friday's second round of the Honda Classic began, defending champion Rory McIlroy had reason for optimism. Despite struggling in his first two events of the season, he looked forward to one of his favorite events of the year: "I really felt like I was rounding a corner" on an uninspiring start to the 2013 campaign. A first-round 70 (E) left him several strokes behind the leaders, but still well within striking range at such an early point.
Six holes into his second round, he stood three over par, having carded a bogey and a double bogey. He proceeded to post a triple-bogey 7, followed by a bogey 4, on the next two holes. Now he's seven over par and can't see the cut line with a telescope. On his ninth hole, a par 5, he plopped his second shot into a water hazard. At this point, with further pursuit of weekend play rendered meaningless, he shook hands with his fellow competitors and walked off the course.
A mid-round withdrawal is nothing new; injured players do it in order to prevent career-threatening aggravation of serious conditions. But when members of the press followed him to his car and asked if there was anything physically wrong, he repeatedly said no, adding, "I'm just in a bad place mentally."
An hour later, his handlers had a different spin on the astonishing turn of events, claiming in a prepared statement that McIlroy was suffering from a painful wisdom tooth that hampered his concentration. The statement didn't come clipped to a note from his dentist.
Fantasy owners now join the rest of the golf world in posing plenty of unanswered questions:
Through three events, McIlroy has completed four rounds plus eight holes. He posted back-to-back 75s in Abu Dhabi to finish +6 and miss the cut. Last week at the WGC Accenture Match Play, he played the #64 seed, Shane Lowry, who managed to squeeze into the event because Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker didn't enter. McIlroy lost to the lowest-ranked player in the event, posting a round that could charitably be called another 75 (he picked up on the crucial 15th hole, conceding it to Lowry to go 2-down). And this week, he managed to post an even-par round Thursday, before Friday's self-immolation.
Thus, after 4½ rounds this season, McIlroy has yet to break par; he's 16-over for the year. We don't have a meaningful sample to consider his performance stats. And obviously, he isn't anywhere near the leaders in FedEx Cup points, the Race to Dubai, or money lists on either side of the pond.
I'm not about to marginalize the effect of a sore wisdom tooth; if that was really bothering him, it can be a real distraction. That circumstance isn't likely to affect him in the long-term, assuming he gets it treated as he says he will. The switch of clubs is more problematic, although he insists that it's his swing, not the sticks. As noted above, he has 200 million reasons to state publicly that his golf clubs are fine – great, even – regardless of how he really feels about them. If they become a real problem, he might find a way to ditch them, as he did with the Nike putter, which lasted only one round in Abu Dhabi before he switched back to another manufacturer's flat stick.
The greatest danger, as Steve Blass could tell him, is in the six inches between his ears. Most likely, McIlroy will snap out of this and return to being a serious threat to win any event he enters. He'll try again next week at the WGC Cadillac at Doral.
At least for now, I advise skepticism. Let's see him make a cut before you go investing in his success over the course of this season.