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Lateral Hazard: Rory McIlroy's walk-off raises more questions about which direction he's headed

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Rory McIlroy bailed out of the Honda Classic midway through the second round. (Getty Images)

Congratulations to Michael Thompson, who beat a top field at the Honda Classic for the 27-year-old's first PGA Tour win, and now officially becomes, "Oh, That Guy Who Won The Week Rory McIlroy Walked Off The Golf Course Because He's Melting Down – Er, Uh – Because Of A Painful Wisdom Tooth."

Pretty sure Thompson couldn't care less about the shaggy-haired Ulsterman's display of mental weakness in Friday's second round. After all, Thompson achieved a lifelong dream by shooting a hard-earned 69 at the tough PGA National for a two-stroke win over a recharged Geoff Ogilvy. But for the rest of us? The Honda Classic will always be "Rory's Regression" more than "Thompson's Title."

Even Jack Nicklaus' enjoyable turn in the NBC booth with Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller centered on the mystery of McIlroy.

A little more than six months ago, McIlroy was kissing a Wanamaker Trophy after a second major championship at the age of 23, and by eight strokes at the 2012 PGA Championship, too – the same gorilla-dunk margin of his 2011 U.S. Open championship.

[Related: Rory McIlroy to clear the air about what happened at Honda Classic]

Flash forward to March 1, 2013, and you have McIlroy dumping golf balls in the drink, logging a double bogey, a triple bogey, then shaking the hands of fellow competitors Ernie Els and Mark Wilson on their ninth hole Friday morning, telling them he couldn't continue, and walking off the golf course. Caught by three reporters on his way to the parking lot, McIlroy admitted to them: "I'm not in a good place mentally, guys."

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McIlroy said an aching tooth prevented him from concentrating during the round. (Getty Images)

This is a phenomenon identified by decorated sociologists as a "low point."

Barstool sociologists might have choicer words for Rory's Tank Job, words more likely found in a Quentin Tarantino script, but modesty precludes us from transcribing them here. We would have asked for a comment from Swedish women's golfer Daniela Holmqvist, but she was too busy working on her new self-help book: "How I Squeezed Venom From a Black Widow Bite On the Golf Course And Kept Playing, And Other Life Lessons From People Tougher Than Rory McIlroy."

Of course, so much of this is traced back to Rory's celebrated switch from Titleist to Nike, and the attendant millions of dollars, and the attendant nouveau friendship with Tiger, and the attendant scrutiny. Oh, and the attendant awful play to start 2013: missed cut at Qatar, a first-round exit at WGC Match Play, and now the "Bad 'Tude at the Bear Trap," a course walk-off and subsequent dog-ate-my-homework news release citing pain from a wisdom tooth as the reason why he could not concentrate.

As one pundit opined: "Maybe he'll cite a torn right 'swoosh' ligament as the reason why."

The Golden Bear was at turns paternally supportive of McIlroy's plight, and at turns gently suggesting he should toughen up, mentally. Citing a prior conversation with McIlroy in the week before the Honda Classic started, Nicklaus told him of the Nike brouhaha: "Don't worry about it. You're too good a player. Clubs will not make that much of a difference."

Then, confirming the assumption that pretty much every generation that has preceded this current one was tougher and more resourceful, Nicklaus pointed out that he played different clubs in the United States (MacGregors), at British Opens in the United Kingdom (Slazenger England) and in Australia (Slazenger Australia). He went on to say he played the English small ball, the B-51 small ball, the MacGregor small ball and, hell, what do you know, wound up with 18 majors.

"I was able to go back and forth and back and forth and it wasn't that big a deal," Nicklaus said, as the current generation of players were likely tweeting, texting or phoning their agents instead of listening to Jack. "Now, maybe the players today are so used to one thing … but I almost feel like it's your talent that plays, not the club."

Somebody book Rory an hour-long therapy session with Jack, pronto.

Nicklaus' style is not to carpet-bomb a young player, especially a young player with such a career of promise like Rory. So, he ended his NBC take with an 'attaboy to Rors, saying: "Rory is so talented. He's a good kid. I think he's a little frustrated with himself, and also has a set of golf clubs he's having trouble getting used to, and one sort of plays off the other.

"He'll be fine. When Augusta rolls around, he'll be fine."

[Related: Rory McIlroy walks off course at Honda Classic]

One guy whose style is, in fact, to carpet-bomb young players, especially if their careers are full of promise, is Miller who added: "Still, walking off the golf course wasn't the best …"

Jack, while disapproving, still wrapped Rory in a bear hug of sorts.

"John, if he'd have waited five more minutes, he wouldn't have done that," Nicklaus said. When Miller, playing "Bad Cop," added: "I didn't like that part," Jack still went to the "Good Cop" corner: "No, he's a good kid and I think he tries to do the right thing. Unfortunately, it wasn't that time."

It used to be, the ad campaign asked us: "What Will Phil Do Next?" Unfortunately, that question now applies to Rory McIlroy, and not in a funny Madison Avenue way. We won't have to wait long. Doral, another World Golf Championship event, starts Thursday. Rory is scheduled to be there. Unfortunately, so will his Nike golf clubs, and dark cloud of doubt.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

70-70-70-74 – 4-over 234, Tiger Woods, tie-37th, PGA Tour Honda Classic, PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Meanwhile, the guy who once won a U.S. Open on one leg spent the weekend looking for golf balls – when he wasn't dumping them into water hazards.

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Tiger Woods shot four-over in the final round of the Honda Classic to finish in a tie for 37th. (AP)

Not a great week for Tiger Woods. But then again, he didn't walk off the golf course. (Make no mistake, even in Tiger's illustriously tough career, he has a few walk-offs: the 2010 and 2011 Players Championship, and even last year at Doral.)

There are two ways to look at Tiger's final-round 74: 1) His eagle on the finishing hole showed the true pride of a grinder and allowed him to end his day with a surge of adrenaline; 2) His litany of missed golf shots all through the tournament – two water balls and a lost ball on Sunday alone – speak to a player whose game is still, after all these post-Escalade-into-a-tree years, inconsistent.

Brandel Chamblee spent some quality time on The Golf Channel showing evidence of Tiger's loose golf swing, even saying his win at Torrey Pines was pockmarked with some big misses. However, as Chamblee pointed out, courses like Doral and Bay Hill – his next two stops, and sites of Woods' triumphs – are places that have golf holes built to bail out his misses.

[Related: Serena Williams busted by security taking pic of Tiger Woods]

Either way, that's four starts in 2013 for Tiger, and if you remove the stirring win at Torrey, he's logged a missed cut (Qatar), a first-round WGC Match Play exit (Charles Howell III) and now the lackluster tie-37th at the Honda, including four double bogeys in the week.

A year ago, Woods shot 62 in the final round at the Honda and created drama in nearly catching McIlroy for the win. This year, said Tiger, "I passed 62 somewhere around 12."

Rimshot! He heads to Doral with, at least, a sense of humor.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"My standard answer is, I still think he'll break my record. I mean, 37 is not that old. I won four majors after (37). So for Tiger to win four or five more, or six or seven more isn't that much of a stretch. I don't see any reason why he won't, but he still has to do it." – Jack Nicklaus, NBC, on The Question: Will Tiger pass his record of 18 major championships?

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Jack Nicklaus thinks Woods still has a chance to pass his record 18 major victories. (AP)

The Golden Bear was strong in the booth with Miller and Hicks, and they asked the right questions. They even got Nicklaus on the record about anchored putting, and his plea for the PGA Tour to follow whatever rules the USGA lays out.

I can't disagree with anything he says here. He's right: 37 is not that old, especially in today's era of improved fitness and equipment, and especially to those of us who are 45. And he's right: Jack himself won four majors after the age of 37, so it's easily within Tiger's reach.

Let's say Woods stays healthy – granted, a big 'if' – and will be an effective force on the PGA Tour until he's, say, 45 years old, just for argument's sake. That gives him eight years of chances at the record, or 32 major championship starts.

[Related: Is it time to be concerned about Rory McIlroy?]

And even though he hasn't won at Augusta National since 2005, and even though Phil Mickelson has won twice there since Tiger last pulled on a green jacket, I still think Augusta National ranks second to the womb as far as Tiger's comfort zones go. So he could win three Masters in the next eight years. Really, he could.

That leaves two other majors to grab to break the record, and if you don't think he can't craft his way to another British Open or two, then you and I don't see eye-to-eye. That'll get him to 19.

Again: Not saying it will happen. Just saying it definitely can. But don't listen to me. Listen to Jack. He's cooler, anyway.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

Michael Thompson's round was full of such good golf – he called it "magical" – I wouldn't want to diminish it by suggesting a pursuer should get a mulligan. Heck, Ogilvy's 69 was aided by one of the more unlikely birdies you'll see – an extremely difficult chip-in on the par-4 16th – so he has to be delighted. Perhaps young Luke Guthrie, 23 years old and on the rise after tying for the 54-hole lead with Thompson, would like a redo on his final-round 73, but this week one player's need for a mulligan outshines the rest.

[Related: Watch Geoff Ogilvy's ridiculous chip-in at Honda Classic]

Let's go back to the 18th tee box at PGA National on Friday morning. Let's assess McIlroy's 7-over score through the first eight holes (he started on 10). Let's understand that maybe his tooth is killing him, that maybe his golf clubs feel weird in his hands, and that maybe even his girlfriend's tennis woes are eating at him. And still, let's not let Rory McIlroy walk off the golf course. Let's let him finish his round, shoot 80, even, miss the cut and go off to the weekend for some rest and range work and no global scrutiny as to his mental state.

Let's get back inside Rory's head, convince him to gut it out and … give that man a walk-off mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

It's another World Golf Championship event, so all the big stars descend on the Blue Monster for a fun week at Doral. Last year, Justin Rose shot a final-round 70 to surge past Bubba Watson for a one-stroke win. Watson shot a final-round 74, which had to raise questions about his mental fitness – until he carved a hook shot from the trees on the 10th hole in a playoff at Augusta National about three weeks later, shed some tears and wore green.

And look who shot a final-round 67 at Doral last year to finish third: Rory McIlroy himself. Chin up, Rors. Peg it, and have at it Thursday morning. And don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.

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