In the annals of surrender, it was small potatoes. Rory McIlroy's white flag on the 9th hole of the second round of the Honda Classic, on March 1 due to a combination of toothache and seven strokes given back in eight holes, did not materially affect the history of the world or even change the course of a golf tournament. McIlroy was toast; he knew it, everybody knew it, nothing more to gain here. Going home.
And yet, as the news circulated, his withdrawal quickly became the most serious instance of capitulation on U.S. soil since Cornwallis bailed during the Yorktown Invitational, losing the American Revolution—the Ryder Cup of its day—for the heavily favored British. McIlroy became, in the casual decision to walk to his car instead of the 9th tee box, a loser of the worst stripe, joining a gumptionless gallery of quitters that includes the likes of Roberto Duran, Shelley Long, Dave Chappelle and Pope Benedict XVI.
Repercussions for this particular type of behavior are usually immediate, especially in sports, in which ideals of perseverance have become so exaggerated that football players would rather risk dementia than sit out a play. One is reminded of the U.S. tennis player Jeff Tarango, who in 1995 left Wimbledon mid-match during a messy meltdown, and whose wife then slapped the chair umpire. Twice.
McIlroy's smackdown was merely metaphoric, but, given that he is a heavily endorsed golfer, potentially much more devastating. By the time he arrived at the WGC Cadillac Championship last week (the tooth was better, as were results for the world No. 1, who finished tied for eighth) he was nattily attired in a Nike hair shirt (from its Redemption line of casual sportswear) and was apologizing profusely.
"It wasn't the right thing to do," he said at a press conference on March 6. "I've got to stick in there a bit more, and I've got to grind it out." Quitting, he further allowed, set a bad example for children and, even worse, cheesed the ticket-buying public. Moreover, he might just as well have admitted, nobody likes one. He assured everyone that he would never do it again and that, at the very least, the tooth would probably be extracted during the off-season.
What McIlroy, just 23 after all, didn't understand was the thematic advantage of adversity. He'd been buoyed all his young life by enormous privileges of ability and circumstance and had never been tested by hardship. There is, of course, no glory in that, no greatness available without having overcome difficulty, without having come back, having made some kind of resurrection. McIlroy had run into adversity and, however sensible it had seemed at the time, simply said, No thanks.
Our heroic set pieces actually depend more on adversity than they do on talent. Tiger Woods may be more favorably remembered for winning the 2008 U.S. Open on a thoroughly destroyed left knee, playing through pain, than for winning all his other majors combined. It was at once humanizing and glorious. In any case, he did not simply pack it in. But examples abound, not just of playing through adversity but of competing against the odds. No, McIlroy was probably not going to win the Honda Classic. But then, the Red Sox, down three games in the 2004 AL playoffs, probably weren't going to win the World Series either.
As fans we are accustomed to examples of determination so extreme it verges on the pathological. Ali-Frazier, a death struggle that involved no fewer than three bouts, has become code for the ruinous kind of effort we expect. Heroism is to be pursued at all costs. Of course, this is not only the province of sports, but of history as well. Whether it's Churchill ("We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be") or Blutarsky ("Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?") exhorting the masses to greater courage, there is always a market for radical resolve.
If this tends, sometimes anyway, to result in idiocy instead of actual achievement—one thinks of General Custer or, for that matter, the Kevin Costner character in Tin Cup, who stubbornly and stupidly whales away, comforted by the ideal behind his aggression—well, that is the price of eventual glory.
So, yeah, McIlroy got a scolding, for taking the mystery out of our games, for reducing them to a series of risk-reward equations, for treating golf as if it were a job, instead of a myth creator. He got a scolding for ignoring the romance of sports, for dismissing storybook narratives, for refusing to acknowledge the fairy tale of possibility, when the facts of probability were so close at hand. So shame on Rory McIlroy.