MIAMI -- The dichotomy was striking.
A contrite and self-deprecating Rory McIlroy exuded maturity and humility Wednesday morning at Trump Doral Resort while explaining why those seemingly innate qualities were absent last week when he quit in the middle of his second round at the Honda Classic.
"I gave myself a red card last week," McIlroy, 23, said jokingly to a standing room only crowd of reporters, appropriating a soccer term. (A red card signifies that a player has been ejected from the game.)
"No matter how bad I was playing," McIlroy continued, "I should have stayed out there. I should have tried to shoot the best score possible even though it probably wasn't going to be good enough to make the cut. At that point in time, I was just all over the place, and you know, I saw red. . . . It was a mistake and everyone makes mistakes, and I'm learning from them."
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McIlroy, who is back in action this week in the WGC-Cadillac Championship, stood seven over par after eight holes last Friday at PGA National Resort and had just hit his approach to the 18th green into the water when he shook hands with playing partners Ernie Els and Mark Wilson and hastily walked off the Champion Course, where a year earlier he had won by two strokes and ascended to No. 1 in the world rankings for the first time.
As he departed PGA National, McIlroy admitted he "was not in a great place mentally." About an hour later he issued a statement blaming a sore wisdom tooth for affecting his concentration. McIlroy said both lower wisdom teeth are troubling him, and he had braces put on to alleviate the pressure. He intends to have them pulled when he returns home to Northern Ireland after the U.S. Open in June.
Being the No. 1 golfer in the world, living under a microscope, and playing poorly to begin the year after a total overhaul of his equipment have compounded the pressure on him and affected his amiable disposition.
"[It was both.] I wasn't in a good place with my golf game . . . my head was all over the place," he said. "But at the same time, I have been struggling with my lower right wisdom tooth for over a year. So, yeah, look, my tooth was bothering me, but it wasn't bothering me enough to probably, you know, quit, but that's just the way it is.
"I think it was a buildup of everything," he added. "I've been putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform and I've been working so hard and not really getting much out of it. That's just been the frustrating thing, and that's what happened. It was a buildup of high expectations from myself coming off, you know, the back of such a great year last year, and wanting to continue that form into this year and not being able to do it. I just sort of let it all get to me."
McIlroy felt well enough over the weekend to practice extensively at The Bear's Club near his U.S.-based home in Jupiter, Fla., and he senses progress to correct a flaw that has crept into his backswing where he picks the club up and outside the line. He clarified that he is not trying to change his swing so much as "trying to change it back to where it was.
"I've worked my ass off over the last four or five days to really try and get this right," he said. "Still, it's a workinprogress. There's no quick fixes in golf, but I'm going to go out there this week and all I care about is my swing, and I know if I can get my swing back on track, that the results will follow."
Having not played a tournament round on the weekend this year, McIlroy is looking forward to four rounds in this week's WGC-Cadillac Championship. There is no cut in the $8.5 million event that features 65 of the top players in the world.
McIlroy is paired with No. 2 Tiger Woods and No. 3 Luke Donald for the first two rounds at the TPC Blue Monster at Trump Doral, with their opening tee time at 11:53 a.m. off No. 10. That marquee group already figured to be the most watched, but the critics will undoubtedly pick apart whatever McIlroy does after his premature exit from PGA National. He was OK with that and doesn't believe his actions will affect his popularity.
"Yeah, I actually think in the long run, Friday will be a blessing in disguise," he said. "It was like it just sort of released a valve and all that sort of pressure that I've been putting on myself just went away. And I was like, [let's] just go out and have fun. It's not life or death out there. It's only a game. I had sort of forgotten that this year."