Updated at: 03/03/2013 3:09 PM
By TIM DAHLBERG
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.
McIlroy’s time as No. 1, by contrast, has been brief. He’s been there on a weekly basis since winning the PGA Championship last year, with Woods now occupying the No. 2 slot.
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.
What McIlroy wanted to prove, of course, was that the new clubs introduced in a music and laser show in Abu Dhabi were just as good _ or better _ than the ones he used to win two major championships and become the world’s top player.. And they may be, though clearly the adjustment process has been more difficult for McIlroy than he publicly allows.
At a reputed $20 million a year, though, he’s got no choice but to play on with the Swoosh.
Woods went through a similar equipment change when he turned pro, though his was more gradual. Nike didn’t even make golf clubs when Woods signed with the company, and he had time to work them into his bag.
Don’t forget, too, that he’s Tiger Woods. And while McIlroy has great talent and great potential, he’s not Tiger Woods.
He is, however, linked to Woods in many ways. They played 36 holes together last weekend at Woods’ home club in Florida after both were eliminated from the Match Play Championship in the first round, and they appear in Nike commercials together. They seem to have a budding friendship, something Woods hasn’t had with many players.
McIlroy could learn a lot from Woods about how to deal with life at the top. Woods has, for the most part, always been able to compartmentalize things and keep them from affecting his game. He’s also a master of talking to the media without really saying anything.
McIlroy, meanwhile, is still adjusting to constantly being in the public eye, and sometimes he’s too honest with the media for his own good. Having a tennis star for a girlfriend only adds to the mix.
"He’s a superstar, a global superstar. And that can only be pressure magnified," McDowell said. "But he’ll get over it. He’s a smart kid."
Hopefully McIlroy can get over it without building walls around him like Woods. Golf needs someone like McIlroy at the top, an affable player with great talent who is humble enough to still relate to fans. For years Woods didn’t sign autographs and even now he does so grudgingly.
If McIlroy made a mistake by walking off the course _ and he did _ it’s one he can learn from. The game can be humbling, even for its best player.
The Masters is little more than a month away, adding to the sense of urgency McIlroy surely feels. Maybe by then we’ll have a real sense what his issues are and he’ll have a sense of how he can overcome them.
The only thing for sure now is that golf will be in a better place when McIlroy is in a better place.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)