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Rory’s painful exit and a glimpse of vulnerability

The Honda Classic - Round Two

Nostalgia, homecoming and ever-surmounting pressure – the few accentuated elements that would have kept the World No.1’s mind busy as he walked onto the Palm Beach Course to kick off the Florida leg of the PGA season. Although he’s a Florida resident now, Rory would still need to get used to the surroundings that were stacked up with countless McIlroy billboards across the town – something he would have never envisioned coming in last year for the same event. However, times have changed and surroundings for an athlete see a stark change too – especially when you make that all-important stride from the chasing pack to the man in the spotlight. Last year, he left The Honda Classic as the top golfer in the world, beaming with confidence and visions of incredibly adventurous prospects; and now that he’s lived all that, he was back as a different man, albeit with an unchanged goal – victory.

However, critics and fans alike have criticized the Irishman’s every move this season – be it opting to join the ‘Swoosh family’ or failing to deliver like the best player in the world is expected to. And if it wasn’t enough, his latest headlining act would keep him in the spotlight for another few weekends. We’ve always seen better play hitting a roadblock during the early few tourneys of the season and, to be fair, his performances before this weekend could be bracketed as ordinary, yet never close to being ugly.

Missing the cut at Abu Dhabi with the new Nike club range and the ball was always going to be challenging as Rory was messing around with the ‘feel’ of the stroke-play that has been synonymous to his performances for most of his playing career. Even the match-play round against his countryman Lowry was about a startling and almost ingenious comeback on the back-nine that would have left any other golfer packing his bags – and Rory was no different. He took it on his chin and strolled confidently as he practised with Tiger ahead of the Honda Classic. He was well aware that, regardless of his form, this is the place where his familiarity to the conditions would outdo the tension building around his golfing abilities. He always tried to remind himself that it all started here for him – the indefatigable run, the No.1 crown and most of his success in 2011 was down to his ability to hold on to a win at Palm Beach.

The Honda Classic - Round Two

Like Tiger has his greens on the tour where he could assume authority, Rory was hoping the same of this setting. And then, when he hit that bizarre stroke into the waters on the eighteenth that marked a horrendous back-nine performance which was approaching a 80-plus round, Rory, in a second or two, aimed to head on for the exit doors. He wasn’t just dejected; it was a moment where frustration, self-doubt and the sheer surprise of letting down his own challenging standard down got the better of him. The cruel realization of the fact that he was playing the worst golf of his life on the same fairways that predominantly scripted the initial steps of his storied career must have got to him. He was the defending champion. He was the identity in the sport that large circles of media expect to fail – not out of malice, but curiosity. They have been scrutinizing his every move to break his mental resolve – which forced many experts to change their opinion about this lad in the past few years. All and all, one could say that an abrupt ending to this homecoming was never on the cards. Moreover, adding an excuse as mundane as a ‘toothache’ would just take it to another level of insanity across the golfing circuit. Yet, in his mind, there were bigger issues that needed answering.

There was his self-belief that took one of its most severe hidings in recent times and then there was his traditional handbook on responsibility of keeping up with the ‘No.1’ tag that will need major revisions. However, in his defence, he couldn’t have ended this one with a frowning face that completed all the holes and yet answering some of the more bizarre questions that would’ve been asked of him. And not many would approve the way of his exit; yet in one of his more vulnerable moments of his career, he could still reassure himself by treating Florida as the place which mirrors his sentiments. He did what he felt was right and that’s trademark Rory, not a champion that lost it once and for all.

Of course, brand McIlroy will take a hit after these events. But he’s now reached a point where the furore caused by these irrelevant events could actually distract the critics off his game. For whatever we have seen of Rory, the most eye-catching facet of his persona has been his distaste for stagnation. No doubt, the Palm Beach that was kind enough to honour him with the title last year only managed to gift him a sour taste in the mouth and a toothache this year, but he could still take satisfaction from the fact that on both the occasions, he got what he asked for. Rory won’t change, not anytime soon. It’s our perception that needs constant tweaking to understand someone like Rory McIlroy.

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