Those who pay close attention to professional golf generally take a dim view of players walking off the course mid-round.
Sandy Lyle was the recipient of some particularly vitriolic, po-faced comment after cutting short his Open Championship at Birkdale in 2008 halfway into Thursday's play, and later claimed he was suffering a hand injury. Ludicrously, if true, it was even claimed Lyle's premature departure from the links played a part in him being overlooked for a stint as Europe's Ryder Cup captain.
The basis for such analysis is deeply flawed, though. If a player claims he is injured, he will be treated lightly. It is therefore preferable for a golfer to cite a medical condition, backed up by letter within a couple of weeks, than volunteer some kind of psychological or professional torment.
Enter Rory McIlroy. The world No1's defence of toothache after making a hasty exit from the Honda Classic was contradicted by comments he reportedly made to journalists in the car park within moments of walking from the course.
"I'm not in a great place mentally," McIlroy said. "I can't really say much, guys. I'm just in a bad place mentally."
McIlroy had slumped to seven over par within eight holes. He had slammed his club into the turf, three-putted once and returned a single double-bogey. He appeared close to tears when walking in. An element of suspicion, then, was inevitable as McIlroy's public relations regime kicked into operation. A statement appeared, and was verified by the PGA Tour, stating how the 23-year-old had found a problem with his wisdom tooth too unbearable to continue.
Advice for McIlroy soon arrived from Tiger Woods, a man who knows a thing or two about negative publicity. "He's just got to be more – just got to think about it a little bit more before you say something or do something," Woods said.
"It can get out of hand, especially when you get into social media and start tweeting and all those different things that can go wrong."
Since the very public downfall of Woods, the sport has desperately sought a new hero. McIlroy rose to become that popular figure, rendering him essential to the game's sponsors, broadcasters and to those who highlight how humble roots are no barrier to topping the world in this particular sport.
For those reasons alone, any troubles associated with McIlroy will always be treated more compassionately than would be routine – as a disappointment, rather than something more sinister.
Golf needs McIlroy, of that there is no question. He may well have a dental issue. What is, however, now beyond dispute is that the professional life of someone who has made playing appear so simple has rapidly been shrouded by deep complications. An equipment deal with Nike has made him even wealthier than before – by at least £78m – but also served to intensify scrutiny on his every on-course move.
Nike have been publicly supportive of their athlete, as is entirely predictable, but privately they can only be concerned at how McIlroy's most inauspicious professional spell has coincided with this lucrative and high-profile partnership.
Last November, McIlroy shrugged aside illness to finish like a train in the DP Dubai World Championship. That final McIlroy round of 2012 was rounded off with five, crucial birdies to endorse his status. This year, his play is unrecognisable and erratic; a missed cut and a first-round matchplay exit preceded Friday's events in Florida. At the Honda Classic, McIlroy's behaviour was similarly at odds with his impressive character.
Graeme McDowell, a close friend of McIlroy, observed as much: "His demeanour looks a little different. I felt like he was a little off with his swing on the range.
"There were a few moans and groans coming from the bay next to me. It's normally a display. It's normally a clinic. That's the sign of a guy who's lacking a little technique in his swing and a little belief in his game."
McIlroy has shown powers of recovery before. With that in mind, it would be an error to write off his chances of doing likewise again soon. Yet he is now playing for the highest stakes, when in the sharpest focus. McIlroy faces the challenge of his professional life to erase some demons before arriving at Augusta in five weeks' time.
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image: © Ed McDonald