In any other sport it wouldn’t be an issue.
LeBron James isn’t going to forget how to dunk, and Roger Federer won’t suddenly lose his forehand smash. Michael Phelps isn’t likely to sink to the bottom of the pool, either.
But this is golf, a game so mental it can sometimes seem impossible. And Rory McIlroy is in trouble.
Not with the PGA Tour, even though he walked off the course in the middle of his round Friday in the Honda Classic. Officials will surely take at face value McIlroy’s belated excuse that he had a toothache, even if he was seen wolfing down a sandwich just minutes before calling it a day.
He seemed to be eating well the night before, too, sending out a picture on Twitter of a birthday dinner for his mother.
But the tooth it is, because it’s harder to deal with the other issues that might be facing the No. 1 player in the world. McIlroy himself alluded to them while walking to his car, telling reporters that he’s “not in a good place mentally.”
Just why that is has raised speculation on both sides of the Atlantic. The leading candidate is that McIlroy hasn’t yet figured out how to play with the new clubs he got in a multimillion dollar deal with Nike, though questions about his well-publicized relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki are never far behind.
Or maybe Tiger Woods just spoiled us all into believing it was easy to be No. 1.
Indeed, while Woods measures his greatness with major championship titles, his reign at the top of golf’s standings may be the one record he holds that won’t be broken. He’s spent a total of 12 years as the No. 1 player in the world, including his last streak of 281 weeks that ended in October 2010.
He held it even when Phil Mickelson said he was playing inferior equipment, and reclaimed it after swing changes that no other player would even attempt. It took a car crash and the public outing of his private life to finally oust him from the top, but his lead was so big that he remained No. 1 for nearly a year after the rest of his world collapsed.
But the game that seemed so effortless for McIlroy suddenly seems confounding to him. He was a whopping 7-over par through eight holes when he hit his second shot in the water and decided to look for the easy way out in Florida. And he hasn’t played on a weekend yet this year.
Mental or dental? Take your pick, but the space between a golfer’s ears can be a dark spot not so easily treated by a few aspirin.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, uneasy is the head that lies beneath the crown.
“When you start trying to prove things to other people and you stop playing for yourself, it’s a dangerous place to be,” said Graeme McDowell, McIlroy’s friend and countryman.