Graeme McDowell was shocked to hear of Rory McIlroy’s Honda Classic meltdown but insisted he must stop trying to prove his naysayers wrong and banish the seeds of doubt by playing for himself alone.
The Portrush man added a 68 to his opening 67 to share 11th place on five under, just four shots behind leader Luke Gutherie who hit a 63 to head the field at PGA National’s Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens.
But his post round chat was dominated by McIlroy’s stunning meltdown and withdrawal after just eight holes of his first round.
Believing McIlroy is suffering from a crisis of confidence over his swing and as a result is trying to hard to prove his $250m move to Nike wasn’t a mistake, McDowell said: “I’m sure the guy has a lot on his mind.
“When you start trying to prove things to other people and you stop playing for yourself it is a very dangerous place to be.
“He is playing to prove things to you guys (the media), playing to the naysayers and people who said he shouldn’t have done what he has done.
“Everyone is saying he can’t do it with Nike equipment. This game is an extremely difficult sport, especially when you start playing for other people.
“He is trying to prove to the world that he is good enough with Nike equipment and it is early days. Early in the season.
“We’ve had some time off. He’s rusty. I know where he is at. I can’t compare it to 2011, where I was after I changed equipment and where he is.
“He is a superstar, a global superstar at that it can only be pressure magnified. But he will get over it. He is a smart kid.
“He is one of the most talented players I have ever seen and once he starts believing in himself again he will be back.”
That said, McDowell sees several differences between the McIlroy who domianted golf in the latter half of 2012.
“To me he is not swinging the club the way he was late summer last year,” McDowell said. “His familiar right to left ball flight has gone to a little bit of a cut shot. I know he has been working hard on that shot but he just looks a little underneath it and the right side of the golf course is now in play for him and he doesn’t have that flight we are all used to seeing.
“To me it is not equipment, it is all technique and a little bit of belief inside his own head. He will be okay. He’s a young and very talented individual.”
McDowell noticed that McIlroy was struggling on the range but insisted that he can only regain his confidence through tournament play.
He said: “When I made my move to Srixon, I had to put a card in my pocket, play competitively and get that feedback and that confidence back. There is no substitute for that.
“You have got to do it on the course. It doens’t matter what you do in practice. That is the only thing that can feed the mind and wipe out these seeds of doubt.”
The warning signs were there on the range as they warmed up side by side though McDowell said there was no mention of a toothache.
GMac said: “His demeanour looks a little different. I warmed up beside him on the range this morning and it wasn’t the normal display of ‘flushery’ that we normally see. There’s a word.
“I felt he was a little off with his swing this morning and there were a few moans and groans coming from he bay next to me and that’s not like him.
“It is normally a display, normally a clinic with superlatives from the coach and caddie being thrown out in the background and it wasn’t like that this morning.
“That’s a sign to me of a guy who is lacking a bit of belief in his game and a bit of belief in his technique.”
Calling for patience for his pal, McDowell added: “You don’t write that kid off. He has got the X-factor and he will be okay.”
As for the wisdom of the$250 million move to Nike, McDowell has no doubt that it was the correct decision.
He said: “Rory is not just looking at the dollar amount. He is looking beyond that at Rory McIlroy’s brand and where Nike can take him. There is not a player in this field would have turned that contract down. Not one player in this field.
“It’s huge financially, sets him up for the rest of his life and like I say, opens doors around the world to build him into a sporting idol as opposed to just a phenomenal golfer.”
McDowell finished the day tied for 11th and looks to be in the mood to make a run at the title.
“I played a lot more solid that I did yesterday,” he said. “Hit a lot of good shots and I am very happy with my general scrambling and putting. My driver is a little off but my iron play has been solid, my wedge play has been solid and I scrambled really well, which was pleasing. I have always enjoyed this event and it’s nice to be in the mix going into the weekend.”
Gutherie shot a seven under par 63 to lead by a shot on nine under from Michael Thompson (65) and by two from Boo Weekley (67) with Lee Westwood (68) tied for fourth on six under with Geoff Ogilvy (66), Doug LaBelle (68), Charles Howell III (67), Sean O’Hair (68) and Justin Rose (66).
Amid the kerfuffle over McIlroy, overnight leader Camilo Villegas almost went unnoticed as he followed his first round 64 with a 77 to miss the level par cut by a shot.
As for Tiger Woods, the former No 1 shot a second successive 70 to make it on the number.