Without hiding behind any rehearsed script or misdirecting with any half truths, McIlroy fell on his sword for walking off the golf course last Friday at PGA National with two simple declarations – “I made a mistake” and “I’m sorry.”
If any other athletes, politicians, CEOs or regular Joes were watching, take notes.
McIlroy was in the midst of a an on-course meltdown in the second round of the Honda Classic last Friday. Already 7-over through his first eight holes and facing another penalty drop after hitting into the water, McIlroy chose to shake hands with his playing partners Ernie Els and Mark Wilson and exit the premises immediately. He told reporters as he got into his car that he wasn’t “in a good place mentally” but an hour later released a statement blaming a sore wisdom tooth affecting his concentration.
Few bought the wisdom tooth excuse, and McIlroy didn’t try to sell it any further even though he’ll be having the dental issue dealt with in Belfast, Northern Ireland, this summer.
“My tooth was bothering me, but it wasn’t bothering me enough to probably, you know, quit,” he said.
The walk-off was really a direct result of the pressure the world’s No. 1 golfer feels as he struggles through swing issues under the global scrutiny regarding his richly rewarded switch to Nike equipment in the off-season.
“It was a buildup of high expectations from myself coming off, you know, the back of such a great year last year, and wanting to continue that form into this year and not being able to do it,” he said. “You know, I just sort of let it all get to me.
“I wasn’t in a good place with my golf game. ... My head was all over the place.”
McIlroy compounded those issues by committing the cardinal sin of sports – quitting. Doing it in the place where a year before he ascended to No. 1 in the world with a dramatic victory over Tiger Woods just accentuated how deep a chasm McIlroy had thrust himself into.
After preemptively indicating he would be apologizing in Wednesday’s press conference, McIlroy walked into the interview room at Doral with an expression that suggested a tooth extraction would be more pleasant. Any tension was quickly broken with a quip from European Tour moderator Michael Gibbons.
“I suppose, Rory, just go straight into the heart of the matter here and how disappointed were you with Manchester United’s score yesterday?” Gibbons said.
McIlroy took the setup.
“It was not a red card, I’ll tell you that much,” he said of the controversial turning point on Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League elimination loss to Real Madrid. “I gave myself a red card last week.”
The 23-year-old, who has spent five years charming everyone with his candor, then stammered through an apology that rang genuine and unrehearsed.
“I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t the right thing to do,” he said of his mental/dental lapse. “No matter how bad I was playing, I should have stayed out there. I should have tried to shoot the best score possible even though it probably wasn’t going to be good enough to make the cut. At that point in time, I was just all over the place. And you know, I saw red, as I said. It was a mistake and everyone makes mistakes and I’m learning from them. I guess for me, some people have the pleasure of making mistakes in private. Most of my mistakes are in the public eye.
“I regret what I did. But, you know, it’s over now and it won’t happen again.”
The only thing that’s not over is McIlroy’s competitive struggle. He has still only played 4.5 rounds of tournament golf in 2013 and the results have all been bad.
He gets a guaranteed four rounds in this week’s WGC event at Doral – the first two rounds with No. 2 Tiger Woods and No. 3 Luke Donald – and only has plans to play in Houston before the Masters Tournament.
“Now I know that it’s just purely the swing,” he said. “The equipment is fantastic. I have no problems at all. When I make a good swing, the ball goes where I want it and the flight I want it, so I know that it’s not that. It’s just getting my swing on the right path.”
He hopes last Friday’s major indiscretion will prove a turning point – “a blessing in disguise.”
“It was like it just sort of released a valve and all that sort of pressure that I’ve been putting on myself just went away,” he said. “And I was like, just go out and have fun. It’s not life or death out there. It’s only a game. I had sort of forgotten that this year.”
McIlroy denied there was any turmoil in his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki and said he would try to go out and have “more fun” playing the game that has been the central element of his life.
“There’s no quick fixes in golf,” he said. “You just have to get to the root of the problem – no pun intended.”
McIlroy’s public relations nightmare, however, was put to rest with the easiest of all solutions – sincerity.
“There’s no excuse for quitting and it doesn’t set a good example for the kids watching me, trying to emulate what I do,” he said. “It wasn’t good for a whole lot of reasons, for the tournaments, the people coming out watching me. I feel like I let a lot of people down with what I did last week, and you know, for that, I am very sorry.”
How hard was that? Well said.