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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 (page G10). "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.