By DOUG FERGUSON
DORAL, Fla. — The statement released by his handlers was almost as bad as the kid’s decision to walk out on the tournament.
It was the first big mistake of his career, at a time when the golf world was enthralled by such a young talent. He was criticized by the press and by his peers for his selfish behavior, though there was hope that he at least would learn from his mistake.
This was Tiger Woods, 1996.
In his fourth straight PGA Tour event since turning pro, the 20-year-old Woods effectively locked up a spot on tour with his tie for third in the B.C. Open. The next week he had another sponsor’s exemption to the Buick Challenge. Woods showed up at Callaway Gardens before abruptly leaving town, and IMG released a statement that he was exhausted. It looked even worse when Woods didn’t even stick around for the Fred Haskins Award dinner to honor him as college player of the year.
Eleven days later, Woods won in Las Vegas and all was forgotten.
That’s the best way out for Rory McIlroy. Good golf goes a long way.
McIlroy laid the foundation for seeking forgiveness in a 25-minute telephone interview Sunday night with Sports Illustrated. He said what everyone else suspected: It was frustration over his game and not pain from his wisdom tooth that led him to walk out on the Honda Classic just eight holes into his second round. He was 7-over par, and with his second shot in the water on No. 18, it was about to get worse.
So he turned in his scorecard and bolted for the parking lot.
“What I should have done is take my drop, chip it on, try to make a 5 and play my hardest on the back nine, even if I shot 85,” McIlroy told the magazine. “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.”
Expect to hear much of the same when he speaks Wednesday at Doral.
He was practicing at The Bear’s Club just hours after he withdrew from the Honda Classic. Ernie Els saw him “practicing his tail off” all weekend, and then McIlroy played Monday afternoon in the Pro-Member tournament at Seminole. They spoke privately. That’s all the Big Easy would share.
“We’ll see what he says tomorrow,” Els said.
It really doesn’t matter.
Most reasonable people know by now that Boy Wonder made a boyish blunder. Jack Nicklaus weighed in by saying if only McIlroy had waited five more minutes, he would have thought the better of leaving. There’s nothing McIlroy can do to change that now, and nothing he can say that will change anyone’s opinion.
“When it comes to being where he’s at, you’ve got to maybe think a little bit more than two minutes,” Els said. “In a couple of years’ time, he won’t even think about this or talk about this. If he wins this week, it will be the last thing we talk about. It will be history, and that’s what it should be. It’s something that’s happened and we should move on from that. He’s a great kid. He’s a great player. And if he admits he’s made a mistake, then that’s that, and let’s move on.”
The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland won his second major last year, captured the money title on the two biggest tours, swept all the important awards and established himself as No. 1 in the world. He also signed a big deal with Nike said to be worth upward of $20 million a year. And he was eager to prove it.
McIlroy noticed a flaw in his swing when he watched the first Nike commercial he made with Woods. There are questions about how well he is adjusting to the driver and the golf ball, even though his bad play the last two tournaments was attributed to his iron game.
He told Sports Illustrated he needed to be more like Woods.
“He might be the best athlete ever in terms of his ability to grind it out,” McIlroy said. “I could have a bit more of that, if I’m honest.”
Honesty has rarely been a problem for McIlroy.
He was probably too honest when he told three reporters who followed him to his car that he was “not in a good place mentally.” When he blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the 2011 Masters with an 80, he stood in the locker room and took every question about his epic meltdown. He was honest on Twitter when he lashed out at a TV reporter who questioned McIlroy’s caddie, referring to the reporter as a failed player and telling him to “shut up.”
Justin Rose knows about expectations.
He was 17 when he tied for fourth in the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale, turned pro a week later and missed the cut in his first 21 cuts as a pro. He later realized that fans didn’t care as much about his results as he thought they did. He worked his way out of the slump eventually and now is No. 5 in the world.
“I guess you can play your way out of trouble a lot quicker when you’re No. 1 in the world,” Rose said. “Facing a little bit of pressure and expectation that’s on Rory right now, he has the skill set and the talent to possibly turn it around a lot quicker.”
The sooner the better.
McIlroy has played only 80 holes in three tournaments this year — a missed cut, a first-round loss in the Match Play Championship, and a withdrawal. He has gone through rough patches before. It was only 10 months ago that he missed four cuts in five tournaments. His shoulders sagged. He threw a few clubs.
But he never walked off the course without finishing, and that makes you wonder if his psyche is really that fragile.
He has two more tournaments on his schedule before the Masters, and the good news about Doral is that it’s a World Golf Championship with no cut. McIlroy is guaranteed four rounds for the first time this year. The first step is his press conference Wednesday.
For McIlroy, honesty will go a long way toward putting this behind him.
Winning will go even further.