DORAL, Fla. —
At age 9, Rory McIlroy conducted a television interview that his longtime coach, Michael Bannon, calls up occasionally on his laptop. It makes him smile to see a wee McIlroy exhibiting the poise and promise that would carry him to international stardom a decade later.
What also catches one’s eye is McIlroy’s choice of clothing. In a clear foreshadowing of the mega deal he signed with Nike this year, McIlroy was wearing a V-neck wind jacket with a large red swoosh across his chest.
Friends of McIlroy, the world’s top-ranked player, believe he is heaping pressure on himself to prove he is worthy of his blockbuster endorsement contract. They say those expectations, not the equipment, are the root cause of his 2013 struggles, which culminated with his abrupt withdrawal from the Honda Classic on the ninth hole of his second round Friday.
McIlroy’s failure to complete his round throws into sharp relief the PGA Tour’s policy on withdrawals, and the unwritten code of conduct for playing on while in considerable mental or physical anguish.
The tour rules state that a player must have a persuasive reason for withdrawing during a round — an injury that requires medical attention, or a serious personal emergency — and must provide the tour commissioner with proof of his distress.
McElroy’s severely bruised ego from giving back seven strokes to par on the first eight holes Friday does not qualify as a compelling reason. An hour after he left the course, McIlroy, 23, released a statement through his management group saying that he had a sore wisdom tooth that made it impossible for him to continue, an explanation he presumably will back up with a note from his dentist.
Failing to finish is not unprecedented on tour. Tiger Woods limped off the course here last year on the 12th hole of the final round with an Achilles’ heel injury. But it does not happen nearly as often as in tennis, a sport McIlroy has become immersed in since he began dating Caroline Wozniacki.
Before Novak Djokovic rose to No. 1 in the world in men’s tennis, he retired from four Grand Slam matches. Wozniacki, ranked 10th, last year withdrew from two matches in which she was trailing.
All touring professionals have days when their swings go missing. The occasional clunker of a round is an occupational hazard, akin to a baseball slugger’s striking out four times in four at-bats. The difference is the struggling hitter can be replaced, delivered from his misery in the middle of a bad day by a merciful manager.
A golfer having a bad round is in a fish bowl, shadowed by his caddie and swimming in dark thoughts for as many as five hours.
After completing a round, a player can withdraw for any reason. Last year, Phil Mickelson cited “mental fatigue" when he pulled out of the Memorial after an opening 79 in front of a swarming gallery rife with camera-clicking fans.
Where the tour’s blanket policy on withdrawals ends is where a player’s conscience carries on. “You don’t have to finish your second round, but it is probably considered to be sort of in poor taste if you just say, ‘I’m out of here’ after shooting a big number,’ " said Stewart Cink, a six-time tour winner.
Cink, 39, has made more than 400 starts since joining the tour full time in 1997. He said he had withdrawn only once, from last year’s Phoenix Open, when a frost delay prevented him from finishing his second round after an opening 83. Rather than return Saturday to complete his final few holes, Cink pulled out so he could catch a redeye flight home to spend the weekend with his family.
“That’s the only time I’ve ever done that in my career, and I wasn’t proud of it," he said. “Probably violated whatever unwritten code there is."
Meg Mallon, a four-time major champion and 18-time champion on the LPGA Tour, takes pride in her playing record, which she said included no withdrawals. Mallon, who attended the Honda Classic, said she would have liked to have seen McIlroy finish.
“If you withdraw once, for whatever reason," she said, “it becomes easier to do it the next time."
There were times, Mallon said, when she was playing so poorly she was walking from hole to hole repeating to herself, “Don’t cry."
“You feel like the bad rounds are never going to end," she said. “You just want to crawl into a hole and disappear. You start adding up your score before you’re done, and it’s embarrassing."
There is a good reason to persevere, Cink said.
“You never know when something will click in your swing," he said, “or you’ll have a putt and a few years down the road you’ll have the same putt, and it’ll be meaningful."