PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Whether his pain was mental or dental, Rory McIlroy walked off the course in the middle of his round Friday at the Honda Classic and invited even more scrutiny of golf's No. 1 player.
McIlroy already was 7-over par through eight holes when he hit his second shot into the water on the par-5 18th and didn't bother hitting another shot. He shook hands with Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, turned in his scorecard and walked straight to the parking lot.
McIlroy told three reporters who followed him that he's "not in a good place mentally."
An hour later, his management company issued a statement that the 23-year-old McIlroy couldn't concentrate because of a sore wisdom tooth.
His abrupt departure only added to the sloppy start to his young season, and raised concerns with the Masters just more than a month away. In three tournaments, he has missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, lost in the first round of the Match Play Championship and withdrew after 26 holes at PGA National.
"His demeanour looks a little different," said Graeme McDowell, one of his best friends. "I felt like he was a little off with his golf swing on the range. There were a few moans and groans coming from the bay next to me. It's normally a display. It's normally a clinic. It's superlatives coming from the coach and the caddie. That's the sign of a guy who's lacking a little technique in his swing and a little belief in his game."
In the parking lot, McIlroy was asked three times if anything was wrong physically and he said no. Golfweek magazine reported he was near tears.
"There's not really much I can say, guys," McIlroy said. "I'm not in a good place mentally, you know?"
Els also hit into the water on the 18th and was complaining to a rules official about the muddy conditions of the fairway when he figured out McIlroy was through.
"I was dropping my ball and I realized he wasn't dropping his ball," Els said. "I thought maybe his ball crossed further up (the hazard). When I hit my fourth shot, he just came up and said, 'Here's my card. I'm out of here.'"
McIlroy, who last year won the Honda Classic to go to No. 1 in the world for the first time, apologized to the tournament for his "sudden withdrawal."
"I have been suffering with a sore wisdom tooth, which is due to come out in the near future," McIlroy said. "It began bothering me again last night, so I relieved it with Advil. It was very painful again this morning, and I was simply unable to concentrate. It was really bothering me and had begun to affect my playing partners."
He was seen eating a sandwich on the 18th fairway.
"I'm a great fan of Rory's, but I don't think that was the right thing to do," Els said.
Told about McIlroy's statement about the sore wisdom tooth, Els softened his stance, not wanting to judge another player's pain.
"I didn't see anything, but if he had a toothache, that's what it is, you know?" Els said. "Hey, it's tough. If you ask him how he's feeling now, he's obviously feeling terrible for what's happened this morning."
"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. He ... wasn't treating Ernie and myself in a different way. He was upset with his golf and I guess he had enough for the week."
Tiger Woods understand better than anyone in golf what it's like to have every move judged, though for Woods it started not long after he turned pro in 1996.
"You've just got to ... think about it a little bit more before you say something or do something," Woods said. " It can get out of hand, especially when you get into social media and start tweeting and all those different things that can go wrong. Jokingly saying something doesn't always come off as saying that, even though the intent was different."
McIlroy, coming off a year in which he won a second major with a record, already set himself up for scrutiny when he left Titleist to sign an equipment deal with Nike that was said to be worth upward of $20 million a year. Instead of taking a long winter break, he spent much of December trying to adjust to his new clubs. McIlroy said Tuesday it wasn't the clubs; his swing was out of sorts.
"I'm sure the guy has got a lot on his mind," McDowell said. "When you start trying to prove things to other people and you stop playing for yourself, it's a dangerous place to be. ... Any player would have did what he's done with regard to the equipment change. He's one of the most talented players I've ever seen. Once he starts believing in himself, he'll be back."
McIlroy won the PGA Championship by a record eight shots last year, making him the youngest player since Seve Ballesteros in 1980 to win two majors. McIlroy won the U.S. Open in 2011 by eight shots with a record score.
Nike introduced him with blaring music and a laser show in Abu Dhabi, but it's been all downhill from there.
After rounds of 75-75 in Abu Dhabi, he took a four-week break and spent time with tennis girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. He was eliminated at Match Play in a sloppy performance by both of them. McIlroy returned to Florida and played 36 holes with Woods at The Medalist.
He said on Tuesday that it was no time to panic so early in the season.
"Even though my results haven't revealed it, I really felt like I was rounding a corner," McIlroy said. "This is one of my favourite tournaments of the year and I regret having to make the decision to withdraw, but it was one I had to make."
It looked more like McIlroy was sinking than rounding the corner, not difficult to do on a course with so many water hazards. And he found plenty of them.
McIlroy, who opened with a 70, hit two poor chips that led to double bogey on No. 11, and a wild tee shot to the right led to a bogey on the 13th. His round really unraveled on the par-4 16th, when he hit his tee shot to the right and into the water, took a penalty drop and then came up short of the green and into the water again on his way to a triple bogey. He three-putted from 40 feet on the 17th, running his first putt about 10 feet by the hole, for a bogey to go 7 over.
And then came the approach on the 18th that found water for the third time on his short day.
McIlroy is scheduled to play next week in the Cadillac Championship at Doral, which has no cut, and then the Houston Open. But on the first day of March, he left having completed only round of competition.
"I didn't think much of the equipment change. We've all made equipment changes before," said Els, who has used three brands of clubs to win majors. "I think there was a bit of criticism somewhere, and then I think he's further responding to that, and I think he's got a bit of pressure coming on him that way. I thought he played quite well yesterday. I thought he was pretty close to playing good golf, and unfortunately this morning ... hopefully he gets it together. We've got next week, got four rounds there. Such a talented player. He'll get it figured out."
Geoff Ogilvy always preached caution about rushing to judgment of Boy Wonder. A year ago, McIlroy missed the cut in four out of five tournaments, including the U.S. Open. He won four times from August to November, including the PGA and two FedEx Cup playoff events.
"Everyone is being a little hard on the equipment," Ogilvy said. "He has a plan. He had a plan last year, and it all worked out for him. He had a rubbish year, really, until late summer. In May, everyone was throwing him under the bus and everyone was claiming him at the end of the year.
"He'll probably go win the Masters by eight and we'll all go, 'He knew what he was doing.' "
It was the second straight year one of golf's biggest stars failed to finish a tournament on the Florida swing. Woods withdrew after 11 holes on the final round at Doral last year because of tightness in his Achilles tendon, raising questions about the seriousness of his recurring leg injuries. He won Bay Hill two weeks later.