Rory McIlroy walked off the course mid-round and straight into a major crisis of confidence after a stunning second round meltdown in the Honda Classic.
The troubled world No 1 denied there was a physically issue as soared to seven over par through eight holes and then walked in after hitting into the water for the third time in the course of a torrid morning as he tried to muscle a fairway wood to the par-five 18th at PGA National, his ninth hole of the day.
Near tears as he stood in the car park with a police escort by his side, a bewildered McIlroy said: “I can’t really say much guys. I’m just not in a great place mentally.”
He then added: “I don’t know what’s going on.”
He later claimed in a statement that he had a massive toothache but while McIlroy’s problems are indeed in his head, they are of the mental rather than the dental variety.
The troubled world No 1 slammed clubs as he hit two balls in the water in his first eight holes, racking up two bogeys, a double bogey and a triple bogey seven to soar to seven over
After carving his second to the lake at the par-five 18th - his ninth hole - he didn’t even bother to take a drop.
After shaking hands with playing partners Ernie Els and Mark Wilson he made a beeline for the car park and denied three times that he had any physical problems before driving away with his caddie JP Fitzgerald and coach Michael Bannon. His management company handler had no idea he had even left the course.
Asked if there were any personal issues bothering him, he said mysteriously: “No. Well, there’s a couple of things.”
Within half an hour he issued a statement to the PGA Tour that could save him from a hefty fine - a wisdom tooth problem. It’s the least of his worries.
Players can’t walk off the course in the middle of a round without presenting a valid excuse for injury or a personal emergency within 14 days. Whether a swing problem and the pressure of a $250m move to Nike are personal issues is a mattter of debate.
In his statement, McIlroy said: “I sincerely apologise to the The Honda Classic and PGA Tour for my sudden withdrawal.
“I have been suffering with a sore wisdom tooth, which is due to come out in the near future. 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.”
If McIlroy is forced to have his wisdom tooth removed next week he could miss the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami - damaging further his preparations for the Masters.
The two time major winner had planned just two more events before Augusta with the WGC and the Shell Houston Open his only remaining warm up events before the Masters.
His withdrawal shocked playing partners Mark Wilson and Ernie Els with the South African critical of the Holywood star’s decision to walk in.
Before hearing of the dental issue, Els said: “I’m a great fan of Rory’s but I don’t think that was the right thing to do.”
Then he added: “If it was bothering him, all credit to him for trying to play through whatever pain he was in.”
McIlroy was seen munching a sandwich on the course, leading his critics to suggest that he had simply thrown in the towel.
His manager, Conor Ridge, issued a statement to quell that talk, saying: “He desperately wanted to defend his title, but his wisdom tooth flared up this morning and was causing him a lot of pain out there, hence he simply couldn’t concentrate on playing golf.”
His withdrawal was plainly caused by his swing issues however and it will put his $250m move to Nike this year under further scrutiny
He shot two 75s to miss the cut on his debut in Abu Dhabi before crashing out to Shane Lowry in the first round of the Accenture Match Play last week.
He admitted after an opening 70 at the Honda Classic that he was struggling to believe in his swing and commit to his shot
But all hopes of making the cut ended when he double bogeyed the 11th, his second, and then followed a bogey at the 13th with a triple bogey seven with two balls in the water at the 16th.
He then three-putted at the par three 17th to slip to seven over, head to the toilet and came back out to hit his tee shot at the last.
While it went straight down the middle, he was unhappy with the flight and dropped his Nike driver on the ground in disgust.
McIlroy’s statement went on: “I came here with every intention of defending my Honda Classic title. Even though the results haven’t revealed it, I really felt like I was rounding a corner.”
Coach Bannon looked a worried man as he watched McIlroy play the 18th but insisted he’d been though swing issues before and it was just a problem with his downswing.
“We’ll just have to be patient and get him back on the rails,” Bannon said, sitting down on the grass to watch what he thought would be McIlroy’s fourth shot. “All he is looking for his a spark. He will be fine.”
But McIlroy didn’t take a drop or hit another shot. He’s due to reappear in next week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami, where there is no cut.
He’s guaranteed four rounds there but will again come under pressure in the Shell Houston Open, which will his last start before the Masters in April unless he adds an event to his schedule.
His media conference is scheduled for 9.30 am on Tuesday morning. It’s certain to be a sellout.