Rory McIlroy’s Withdrawal Unfortunate But Understandable

As all the world knows by now, Rory McIlroy walked off after completing just eight holes of the second round at the Honda Classic last week. He blamed the distraction on a tooth ache. Starting on the back nine, he made double bogey on 11, bogey on 13, triple bogey on 16, bogey on 17, hit his approach shot on 18 into the lake and without finishing the hole, politely shook his fellow competitors’ hands, and walked off.

According to Doug Ferguson at the AP, McIlroy told three reporters who followed him to his car that it was nothing physical but that he was “not in a good place mentally.” An hour later, he released a statement through his management company that he couldn’t concentrate because of a sore wisdom tooth.

But during the course of all of this, he also said that his fellow competitors, Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, didn’t deserve the distraction of his completely uncharacteristic poor play. 

Back in the heydays of my Monday qualifying adventures, I had my own experience of not being “in a good place mentally” and granting my three fellow competitors the mercy of not having to watch it anymore.

White Columns Golf Club in Alpharetta, Georgia, was my favorite Monday qualifying course. The Tom Fazio-designed jewel was esthetically ladled into the Georgia-pines forest just northeast of Atlanta. I was really looking forward to my round because White Columns was the very first course I attempted to Monday qualify on and in the subsequent years my first impression of the course was never diminished. The course was gorgeous and in immaculate condition.

The other reason I was really looking forward to the round was because by that time, I had become a known commodity to the Champions Tour officials and on this fine May day, I was rewarded with a prime tee time with three of the best players in the Monday qualifying game at the time. But I also remember wondering if that had been a mistake.

I don’t remember much of the details of the round, I only remember snippets of the worst of it. I started to get into trouble almost right away with early bogeys. But I remember being calm and undaunted until the short, par-4 5th. With a short iron in my hand and an uphill lie, I neglected to account for the tendency for the ball to go left. My pitch shot out of the wood chips was close to miraculous, but with my round on the line, the makeable putt missed.

Then I drove it in the tee line of the par-5 6th; couldn’t save it.

I remember feeling quite professional by strategically hitting 3-wood instead of driver on the downhill par-4 7th. But I also remember my dismay at how soaked my glove and visor headband had become in the heat and still humidity as I tried to pitch my approach shot out of the woods and onto the green.

On the beautiful, downhill par-3 8th, I remember watching my slow-hook 6-iron descend down the tall left bank and into the hazard, the bank on the right that flowed out of the trees and down to the green and would have kicked my ball onto the green, a wasted safety net.

And I remember almost whiffing my tee shot on the par-5 9th, my thin shot mercifully carrying across the fronting pond, but finishing well back in the fairway. No problem. I’d just wail on my 3-wood, carry it across the right fairway bunker to give myself a shot at the large green and right the ship for the back nine.

I’d had the same shot during my practice rounds, but from up where my tee shot should have been. Nevertheless, professionally gathering myself for the assault, I let go with another heroic bash…that I caught thin again. The ball started dead online, flew into hard-packed back wall of the bunker, ricocheted straight up and did an ignominious double gainer back into the bottom of the bunker.

When I got up to the bunker, I was still 235 yards away and my only shot was a wedge back into the fairway. Drenched in sweat, my spirit finally broken, I walked into the bunker, picked the ball up and waved it at my fellow competitors signaling that I was done. How much more of this should they have to take?

Up at the green, I matter-of-factly attended the flag and then followed them back to the carts to sign and surrender the guy’s card I had been keeping. I remember offering a gentlemanly apology that it hadn’t been my day, but it was without any self-recrimination or drama; I had just released them to their fresh start on the back nine.

I packed my bag back up the hill to the clubhouse and out to the parking lot.

So while I watched Rory go through the same kind of experience at the Honda, I had more than a little empathy for his actions and his motives.

Because of the shock with which these events struck the iconoclasts, Rory has not since mentioned his consideration for Els and Wilson, perhaps out of fear that it would be viewed as an excuse rather than pure-hearted motive. He has stood up for the standard that you never give up, never quit and apologized, assuring us that he will never do it again.

But until you stand in his shoes…

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