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Hawk's Nest: McIlroy should have been forthcoming

Rory McIlroy
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It pleases me to no end when I turn on the Florida swing and see everyone in the gallery wearing a jacket. The players are dressed in sweaters, the wind is howling like my seventh-grade science teacher, and all of a sudden, Connecticut in early March doesn’t seem like torture.

If you’re a cold-blooded type sentenced to life in an arctic climate, 2013 has gotten off to a great start. The season began with a Hawaiian hurricane. We snickered when 3 inches of snow fell in Tucson, and when the PGA Tour fled to West Palm Beach for last week’s Honda Classic, it found November in Nebraska instead.

They call Florida the Sunshine State, but after flying to Orlando every week for four years, walking out of the airport and feeling Mother Nature’s gnarliest breath hit me in the face, I know it’s just a tourist lure. Nicknames such as “Hell’s Real Kitchen” or “Perspiration Nation” probably wouldn’t sit well with the chamber of commerce.

So they came up with something a bit more positive. Oh sure, the sun does shine in the Sunshine State, usually after three hours of mean-spirited clouds and a biblical thunderstorm. Ninety degrees isn’t a golf-cart mandate – it’s a thermometer reading at 7:45 a.m. And when it gets chilly? Sorry, but you are unworthy of sharing my pain.

The temperature here climbed all the way to 38 today. Fahrenheit, not Celsius.

IT HAPPENS ALMOST every week in the auspiciously entitled world of professional golf. A player gets off to a lousy start, misses a 5-footer for bogey on the seventh green, then feels a tweak in his back or a twitch in his knee. Six players failed to complete 36 holes at last month’s Northern Trust Open, including Sean O’Hair, who fired an opening-round 83.

Dustin Johnson quit after 27 holes in Honolulu. Four guys withdrew before the cut at Torrey Pines. What Rory McIlroy did last Friday at PGA National was hardly uncommon, but when you’re 23 years old and you’ve won a pair of major championships by eight strokes apiece, you are never invisible.

You can’t walk off a golf course after eight holes and not expect everyone to notice. You certainly can’t figure that people will buy into your story that you WD’d because of a toothache, a dog-ate-the-homework explanation that ranks with the best in golf history. It’s not that McIlroy is held to a higher standard because he’s the world’s top-ranked player.

It’s just that nobody cares when Alistair Presnell walks off after nine holes, which was the case the day before.

The toothache isn’t really the issue. Pain is a purely subjective matter – it’s not something that can be measured, or in most instances, even questioned. That said, imagine this scenario: McIlroy shakes hands with Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, withdraws from the tournament, then admits:

“You know what? I was playing horribly, embarrassing myself and destroying my confidence with every swing. I was doing myself a lot more harm than good out there. If the PGA Tour wants to fine me or spank me on the buttocks for quitting in the middle of the round, I have no problem with that, but I’m not going to remain out there and play like a 7 handicap when I’ve got some things I need to work on, including my competitive disposition.”

Would you, the serious golf fan, find those comments honestly refreshing or outrageously unacceptable? Charles Barkley has turned candor into a pop-art form. At the end of the day, a lot of people would still call McIlroy a quitter. More, however, would view him as a realist.

WHAT YOU DON’T see every week is a first-round leader who misses the cut, which is what happened to Camilo Villegas at the Honda Classic. A 64-77 combo added up to Villegas’ third consecutive MC, but his substandard play dates back to the start of 2011, when he was disqualified from the season-opener at Kapalua for removing loose impediments.

At this point, Villegas’ decline has evolved into a full-blown tailspin. His best finish in 29 starts since the beginning of 2012 is a T-18 in New Orleans. He saved his Tour card with some decent golf during last year’s Fall Finish, but any confidence or momentum he gained amid that stretch appears to be lost.

While emerging as one of the game’s best young players from 2006-08, Villegas’ success surprised some of his fellow Tour pros. They saw a homemade swing with moving parts and a putting stroke that wasn’t always reliable inside 5 feet, but the kid from Colombia kept getting better and better.

Back-to-back victories in the 2008 FedEx Cup playoffs signified that Villegas had arrived. His slight build was stacked with muscle, and very few players were longer off the tee – Villegas averaged a career-best 302.1 yards per drive in ’06.

Nowadays, he looks smaller, and his drives are more than 10 yards shorter. Here’s a stat for you: In 2011, Villegas ranked 163rd in greens in regulation and finished 109th in the FedEx Cup standings. In 2012, he jumped all the way to fourth in GIR but fell to 148th in the FedEx derby, leaving him out of the playoffs.

The moral to this story? If you can’t putt, it doesn’t matter where you hit it.

GOD BLESS DAVID Duval. More than 10 years have passed since perhaps the greatest career collapse in golf history, but Duval keeps searching, entering tournaments while missing cuts at a prolific rate – 30 times in 37 starts over the last two years.

I got a nice text from him last Saturday night, just to say hello and ask how I’ve been. We had a brief exchange, but when I asked if we could speak briefly on the phone, the conversation went cold. I’m pretty sure the guy is tired of talking about his long-lost game, even to someone he’s known and trusted for 16 years, and I can’t say I blame him.

On the same day the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer quit in mid-round because of a toothache, a former No. 1 showed up for his Friday tee time after opening with a 78. For all the good and bad that has occurred in Duval’s life over the last decade, I have just one question as a journalist:

Why do you keep trying?

There isn’t an ounce of condescension or sarcasm in my inquiry. In fact, I find Duval’s continued efforts to regain his form exceedingly admirable. Other superb players have fallen on hard times over the years, but none fell further or faster – and none tried for so long to figure it out.

Just as pain cannot be measured, neither can mental toughness. Are you feeling me, Mr. McIlwithdraw?