Ernie Els criticised Rory McIlroy for his Honda Classic walk-out - then showed the youngster some compassion as he recalled a meltdown of his own.
The Big Easy, who lost his temper himself on the 18th when he was forced to hit a muddy ball after the preferred lies rule was rescinded following Thursday’s concession to the soft conditions, initially sounded annoyed that McIlroy walked away before they had even completed the ninth hole.
“I’m a great fan of Rory’s, but I don’t think that was the right thing to do,” the Open champion said.
On hearing that McIroy might have been suffering from a toothache, Els said: “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. He obviously couldn’t do it after nine holes anymore. Toothache, it’s not fun I guess.”
The pair did not exchange words when McIlroy walked over to say his goodbyes after both had hit into the lake at the 18th.
“No, we just shook hands. I was going nuts on 18 there on the rules official, because we had mud on the ball I mean, crazy stuff. Then I think he hit his shot first, he hit it in the water, and then I followed him in there.
“I was dropping my ball and I realized he wasn’t dropping his ball. I thought maybe his ball crossed further up. When I hit my third or fourth shot, he just came up and said, here’s my card, I’m out of here.
“He’s feeling terrible about it, I know he is. That’s the last thing he wants to do is walk off. Yeah, if he’s seven over or whatever he was, you’ve got something bothering you, you know, the rules of play, you can walk off at any time.
“Obviously something was seriously bothering him, and he was not going to make the cut and probably didn’t want to continue playing that way.
“Well, all credit to him (for saying he was upsetting his partners). I’ve played like that before. It’s embarrassing. You don’t want to be out there while you feel like, get me out of here.
“So you know, I didn’t see anything, but if he had a toothache, that’s what it is, you know. Hey, it’s tough. If you ask him how he’s feeling now, he’s obviously feeling terrible for what’s happened this morning…..
“I know at the German Masters one year, I played the 36th hole, hit it in the hazard, had a couple of blows in the hazard and basically walked into the tent (laughter). I was ten or 11over. I don’t recall walking off, no.”
Asked about McIlroy’s equipment change, Els was speaking with authority having won four majors with a host of club manufacturers.
He understands the pressure is now mounting on McIlroy’s young shoulders with increased criticism of the Irish stars megabucks.
Els said: “Yeah, unfortunately, it seems like it’s kind of building now a little bit. 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 furthering responding to that, and I think he’s got a bit of pressure coming on him that way.
“I thought he played quite well yesterday. I thought he was pretty close to playing good golf, and unfortunately this morning … hopefully he gets it together. We’ve got next week, got four rounds there. You know, such a talented player, he’ll get it figured out.”
McIlroy opened with a regulation two putt par from 38 feet at the 10th. But his round started to unravel at the tough 11th, where he hit a fairway wood down the right side but saw his approach come up short in the bank just over the lake.
From there he cuttled his third through the green.
He then flubbed his fourth onto the green from the rough, slamming the club angrily into the ground, missed a nine footer and walked off with a double bogey six that left him facing his second missed cut from as many starts this year.
At the 427 yards 12th he faced a wedge from 112 yards but hit it 23 feet right of the hole.
Tossing the club in disgust, he trudged to the 13th and carved his three wood tee shot 40 yards right of the centre of the fairway into the rough. After coming up 10 yards short of the green, he pitched to six feet and missed the putt to go three over for the day.
He then pushed his tee shot right at the 14th, missed the green right from 173 yards and did well to save par from eight feet.
Entering the dreaded Bear Trap he hit a 183 yard tee shot to the back right of the green, flirting with the water and two putted from 30 feet for his par three.
But his mind finally went at the tough 16th where he took a fairway wood off the tee and leaked it right into the water, dropping the club again in disgust.
Head down, he came up short in the water with his 142 yards third. Then, after taking a drop, he fired his fifth to the front apron, chipped to six feet and holed the putt for a triple bogey seven.
Head down again, he walked through a tunnel sponsored by his old apparel and eyewear sponsors Oakley and played last to the par three 17th.
But he raced his 42 foot birdie putt at least 10 feet past the hole and missed the return, three putting for a bogey four to go seven over for the round and the tournament.
As Els and Wilson headed for the 18th tee, McIlroy headed for the portaloos and only reached the tee after his partners had already hit.
Without even bothering with a practice swing, he hit a cut driver down the centre and tossed the club onto the ground in disgust and frustration once more.
Els remonstrated with a rules official for five minutes over the fact that he had to play with mud on his ball as McIlroy waited his turn to play.
The heated discussion took so long that McIlroy decided to play his second but with 250 yards to the pin he carved that into the lake on the right.
Els, predictably, followed him in and snarled at the rules official.
“I just cannot see the point where you hit a perfect tee shot and you get penalized with mud on your ball. Then it’s a guessing game. I mean, you’ve got water all over the place. Yeah, I fought on that, and it just got to a point (laughter) some money I’m going to have to donate to charity or something (laughter).”
After Els and Wilson had played their approaches to the green, McIlroy shook hands with his playing partners and made a beeline for his car.
Wilson said: “No, I didn’t notice anything. He wasn’t playing the way the world No. 1 plays normally. Didn’t hit the ball where he wanted to, and he’s a true gentleman, though. It’s not like he was really wasn’t treating Ernie and myself in a different way. He was upset with his golf and I guess he had enough for the week.”
Asked if McIlroy had said anything about his wisdom tooth, Wilson replied: “No, he didn’t, no… All he did was hand me the scorecard and said that he’s going in after that hole. I wasn’t about to ask him, either.”
After shaking hands with his partners, McIlroy walked off the 18th as his caddie JP Fitzgerald asked a policeman to escort them off the course.
McIlroy quickly denied that he had a physical problem, however, as he marched disconsolately across the putting green and out to the car park.
His toothache problem was only revealed in a statement released later in the morning but his issues are clearly more mental than dental.