PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Questioning the, um, wisdom of Rory McIlroy's recent change in equipment gathered more steam Thursday morning after the No. 1 player in the world withdrew from the Honda Classic midway through his second round.
Having gone seven over par through eight holes on the Champion Course at PGA National and then hitting his approach into the water on the par-5 18th, McIlroy packed it in without hitting another shot, shook the hands of his playing partners Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, and left the grounds, driving off in his blue BMW. He later issued a statement citing pain in a wisdom tooth that apparently flared up overnight.
McIlroy has yet to make a cut in 2013, but says his switch to Nike equipment isn't to blame.
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"I have been suffering with a sore wisdom tooth, which is due to come out in the near future," McIlroy, 23, said in a statement. "It began bothering me again last night, so I relieved it with Advil. It was very painful again this morning, and I was simply unable to concentrate. It was really bothering me and had begun to affect my playing partners."
Both Els and Wilson said they knew McIlroy, who opened with an even-par 70 on Thursday, was struggling with his game but were not affected by him. They did not notice if he was in any pain. The Associated Press reported that he had been eating a sandwich in the 18th fairway minutes before walking off the course.
"All he did was hand me the scorecard and said that he's going in after that hole, Wilson said. "He wasn't' playing the way the World No. 1 plays normally. . . . He was upset with his golf, and I guess he had enough for the week."
"Hey, listen, if something was bothering him, you know, it was bothering him and all credit to him trying to play through whatever pain he was in," Els said. "He obviously couldn't do it after nine holes anymore. Toothache, it's not fun, I guess."
McIlroy, who missed the cut at Abu Dhabi with a pair of 75s to start his year and then lost in the first round of last week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, has been under increasing scrutiny after he changed equipment late last year, leaving Titleist for Nike. McIlroy was voted PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2012 after winning four times, including the PGA Championship by a record eight strokes. He also won the money titles on the PGA Tour and the European Tour, the second player in as many years to achieve that feat after Luke Donald did it in 2011.
"Yeah, unfortunately, it seems like it's kind of building now a little bit," Els said. "I didn't think much of the equipment change. We've all made equipment changes before. I think there was a bit of criticism somewhere, and then I think he's further responding to that, and I think he's got a bit of pressure coming on him that way."
"He's had a funny start to the year," said fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, who added that no player in the Honda field would have turned down McIlroy's new equipment deal estimated to be worth upwards of $20 million per year. "He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, then lost to [64th seed] Steve Lowry in Match Play. All of a sudden he's not getting a lot of momentum.
"He just needs to get over the hurdle of playing for others and start playing for Rory McIlroy. He wants to prove to the world he's good enough with Nike equipment. He's a smart kid. We all experience this sometime in our careers. To me, it's a mini-crisis. We're 2.1 events into the season. There's a lot of golf to be played.
"He has the "X" factor that so few people have," McDowell added. "He's a hell of a talented player. He's lacking a little bit of belief in his game and a little bit of belief in his technique. He's got a lot of stuff going on in his mind. He's a global superstar and it can only be pressure magnified on him. But he'll get over it. He'll be fine."
"He has a plan, obviously, and he's going to stick to it," Geoff Ogilvy said. "In May everyone was throwing him under the bus and it all worked out. I would imagine, with new equipment you'd play more before you get to this point. . . . He's got a plan. He'll probably go win the Masters by eight and then we'll say, 'See, he knew what he was doing.'"
Barring another withdrawal, McIlroy will play four rounds next week; he is scheduled to compete in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral Resort in Miami, which is a no-cut, limited field event.