Whether the reason for the world number one's departure from the tournament was mental or dental, McIlroy cannot afford too many similar stunts, warns Steve Elling.
Rory McIlroy's sincerity is under scrutiny after Honda Classic walk-off
The final round of top-ranked Rory McIlroy's defining 2012 season ended with an awe-inducing five successive birdies. It sealed top-player honours on two major tours and cemented his position as the game's best, by both acclamation and accomplishment.
In the parlance of those his age, it was all good.
November feels like a metaphorical career ago, because like so many shots with his flashy new driver, everything has gone sideways since, culminated by a frustrated, deflated mid-round walk-off last week during another aromatic round at the Honda Classic.
He was the defending champion and competing at a venue where he first became ensconced as the No 1 player. But halfway through the second round, McIlroy picked up his new sticks and went home, offering mental fatigue as his only alibi. Well, until an hour later, when he issued a statement complaining of aching wisdom teeth.
Mental or dental, it has certainly been developmental. A player adjudged to be the anti-Tiger in terms of candour, approachability and temperament has spent the past five days swabbing up an embarrassing, self-inflicted mess.
Yesterday at the Cadillac Championship outside Miami, he formally fell on his sword before the assembled media.
"It wasn't good for a whole lot of reasons, for the tournament, the people coming out watching me," McIlroy said. "I feel like I let a lot of people down with what I did, and for that, I am very sorry."
Though he seemed contrite, for the first time, there is reason to wonder about his sincerity. After he had been called out on Sunday by Jack Nicklaus, McIlroy apologised in a Sports Illustrated story that was posted on Monday.
Humble pie was ordered, but with those sore teeth, did he really swallow? On Tuesday, McIlroy Tweeted, then deleted, a message with the hashtag "FTB", an off-colour inside joke apparently aimed at critics that, ultimately, was not all that inside. "It's a little private joke between friends, and something I probably can't divulge on live TV," he said yesterday.
The episodes with McIlroy, given his age and rapport with fans and media, was handled with comparative kid gloves - a few dentist jokes aside. But more stunts like this and the knives will be out.
"It's not like I want it to be a strained relationship, because it's going to be a long one, I hope," he said.
Ernie Els, who played with McIlroy last week, sensed some serious disenchantment at the root of the meltdown. "You're exposed and people look up to you … and you have to act accordingly," Els said on Tuesday. "It's a lot of stress. It's a lot more pressure than the guy who is 50th in the world."