Rory McIlroy has experienced the full gamut of emotions at the Honda Classic from the zenith of the 2012 victory that saw him become world number one to last year’s nadir — the infamous walkout that made headlines around the world.
In turmoil on and off the course, the Holywood star fled without even completing the ninth hole of his second round, confessing just yards from the scene of the “crime” yesterday that at the time there was so much going wrong in his life, “I couldn't cope with anything more.”
Seven over par for his round after racking up two bogeys, a double bogey and a triple bogey, he had just carved his second shot into the lake at the par-five 18th he shook hands with Mark Wilson and Ernie Els in mid-fairway and made for the car park.
After telling this reporter and others that he wasn’t in a good place mentally, his initial excuse of an aching wisdom tooth was clearly wide of the mark and masked far deeper problems that went beyond the merely technical problems, such as adjusting to his new Nike equipment and the pressure of expectation that a $20m a year deal can put on a young man’s shoulders.
Sitting down with the media ahead at PGA National yesterday, McIlroy admitted the last year’s incident feels like it’s in the dim and distant past, so much has happened in the intervening 12 months, culminating in his break away from management group Horizon Sports Management.
Not only has McIlroy become his own man — Rory McIlroy Inc is the name of his new company — he is essentially a changed man too and one who is determined to it up to the tournament organisers having contemplated not coming back at all at one stage last year.
“Yeah, I've changed,” the 24-year old said in a brief press conference that lasted little more than eight minutes. “I am more mature, I am not as naive, I am more experienced. I guess I just know the world a little bit more.”
Asked if he would have a little more intent when he joins Masters champion Adam Scott and former Walker Cup rival Billy Horschel in the first tee tomorrow, he said: “No, but of course there is a sense that I need to make up for last year — and play 36!”
His joke said it all about the huge change in his circumstances on and off the course. Where 12 months ago he had legal problems (and possibly other issues) brewing under the surface, not to mention a faulty golf game, he’s now got the perfect ball-driver combination and looks ready to beat all comers again.
“I guess there was a point last year that I was thinking of not playing this year,” he said. “But I owe it to the tournament and I owe it to the organisers to play because it is now my home town event. After what happened last year I feel like I should at least play here. I've played well here before and like the golf course so there is no reason why I shouldn't play. I won here and got to world No 1.”
Like Tiger Woods, he is now a local player, living just a few minutes drive down the road. But while last year’s meltdown is well and truly behind him, you can still sense some emotion in his voice when he reflects on that dark day.
“It feels like a long time ago, yeah, and coming in here last year, I was coming off the back of a couple of bad results in Abu Dhabi and the Match Play,” he said. “I was still getting used to new equipment, high expectations, and not really I guess not really being in control of my game.
“There were a lot of things going on at that time, as well. Obviously my game wasn't where I wanted it to be. My mental state wasn't quite where I needed it to be. You know, there was a few things that were occupying my thoughts that probably didn't need to be and shouldn't have been, but it was just a very difficult time.
“I'm glad that everything has sort of just been cleared up. I'm happy with where I am now. I mean, it's difficult to deal with, especially when you haven't had to deal with it before.
“But everyone deals with it in different ways. I guess it was a little bit of a shock to the system for me and I just needed a little bit of time to deal with a few different things.
“I needed to change a couple of things in my game, but there was a lot of things I needed to change off the course, so that was one big thing, to sort of get my head right to be able to go on the course and just think about golf.”
Admitting that there was a touch of public hysteria surrounding his meltdown last year, he nodded and said: “It was, but you should never walk off the golf course, no matter how bad things are.
“it was just one of these days, I just felt like I couldn't cope with anything more, especially not the way I was heading I was going to shoot 90. That was the last thing I needed."
Was it embarrassing?
“It's not embarrassing because I think a lot of people in the same situation might have done the same thing. But I've learnt from it and I've moved on. Yeah, I mean, it wasn't my finest hour, but at the end of the day, everyone makes mistakes.”
Asked when it dawned on him that he’d made a major mistake in walking off, he said: “I guess maybe a couple of days later. I guess a missed cut wouldn't have been that bad instead of a withdrawal. As I said, it wasn't the best thing to do, and it definitely won't happen again.”
Having changed management companies twice in the space of 18 months, moving from Chubby Chandler’s ISM to Horizon before striking out on his own last year, McIlroy explained to the PGA Tour website yesterday they he “outgrew” his previous management groups.
Explaining what he meant, he said: “I guess I felt a little like that in Chubby's stable in that I didn't feel like I was getting the right attention. I guess when you get to this level, you don't really need a management company per se.
“You just need someone who knows who you are. You need a good lawyer, a couple of people around you who really know what they are doing. They don't need to be part of a management team or part of anything. You can handle you affairs yourself."
With first first major of the season looming, McIlroy has a chance this week to compared his game to the top three in the world in Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson.
The Irish challenge is complete by the in-form Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington, who needs to win qualify for next week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral and avoid missing the Masters for the first time since 1999.
Harrington has a maximum of just five events to win again and ensure he doesn’t miss the Masters for the first time since his debut in 2000.
With the likes of Tiger Woods, Scott and Henrik Stenson, not to mention Open winner Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, the re-born McIlroy and a resurgent Sergio Garcia, it could not be a tougher ask for the three-time major winner.
Harrington certainly knows it’s not going to be easy on the toughest course on the PGA Tour outside the majors having missed the cut in three of his last four starts.
“I am trying to get into the Masters every week,” admitted the Dubliner, who is now 139th in the world and bidding to end a four year winless streak on the world’s big tours. “I have five events between now and then - this week, Copperhead, hopefully Bay Hill, where I need an invite, San Antonio and Houston.
“I’m happy with how I am hitting the ball but this is one of the toughest courses of the year, by a long way. There are several shots you are waiting to hit all day and hoping to get through those such as the Bear Trap holes at the 15th, 16th and 17th.
“But there are also others like the sixth, there are a lot of tough holes. Thankfully, other people find it tough too so it would be a good week to have a bit of distance control and hit it straight.”
After finishing seventh in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and reaching the quarter-finals of last week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson, Graeme McDowell arrives in Palm Beach Gardens bubbling with confidence having finished sixth, ninth and fifth in his last three starts at PGA National.
“Pebble and Tucson were great work outs for me to see where my game is at,” McDowell said. I didn’t have a great week on the greens in the matchplay — I only holed when my back was against the well — but everything else was pretty good and I drove the ball really well.”
Darren Clarke, who is playing the event for the first time since he missed the cut in 2012, is fully recovered from the chest muscle injury that forced him to pull out on the range at the Qatar Masters and then withdraw after a first round 78 in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera two weeks ago.
Like Harrington, he has not qualified for next week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship and plans to take a break after spending the last three weeks at his US base in Florida.
“I hurt my chest on the range after the pro-am in Qatar,” Clarke said. “I’d hit it lovely in the pro-am and was hitting it well on the range and just started hitting it harder and harder and harder and pulled something. I couldn’t go on in LA but it’s fine now and my game is actually alright.”
Now ranked 290th in the world, Clarke cannot qualify for Doral even if he wins this week. But he’s still encouraged by his game despite modest results in the Volvo Golf Champions (24th) and the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship (52nd).
“I just need to put a few scores on the board,” Clarke said. “Of course, I want to play well and win but golf is not the be all and end all any more. In the past I’ve placed too much importance on golf so I’ve got to make sure Alison and the kids are alright.
“I’m working with James Sieckmann on my short game. But I’ve got to hole a few more putts and try and put four rounds together.”