Tom English: Golf truths are like pulling teeth

Rory McIlroy faces the music in Miami. Picture: AP
Rory McIlroy faces the music in Miami. Picture: AP
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HAD a stranger to the golf world happened to be sitting in on Rory McIlroy’s mea culpa in Miami yesterday, they might have wondered what crime had been committed to result in such a remorseful response. McIlroy quit during the Honda Classic last week.

It was a mistake (mentally) compounded by another mistake (dentally), but golf can get overly pious about these things. As he sat there apologising, as he needed to do, the feeling was that it had all gone a little too far. Golf can get terribly po-faced at times.

Po-faced and two-faced. Instead of focusing on what McIlroy said when attempting to cover his tracks last week maybe we should think a little bit more about why he said it. Two case studies here, both from the summer of 2008, both from major championships, both heroic European players of the present and the past.

During the second round of the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, Ian Poulter was in a pretty dark place. He’d shot a seven-over-par 78 on the Thursday and things got even worse for him on the Friday. He’d already had a triple-bogey and two doubles (including a missed short putt which he tried to hole back-handed) and had drifted to 14 over by the time he reached the 16th tee, where there was a hold-up in play. At that point, Poulter walked off the golf course. He shook hands with his partners, Luke Donald and Paul Casey, and disappeared. He said nothing to the USGA official who was in their company about a sore wrist, but that was the reason he gave for his withdrawal. Injured it while hacking out of some rough stuff, apparently. Couldn’t play on. Much too risky. What can you do, right?

There were some mutterings about the legitimacy of Poulter’s withdrawal, but they came and went pretty quickly. On the surface at any rate, people bought his reason for quitting. Little more was ever heard of it. A month later, at the Open in Birkdale, Sandy Lyle walked off during his first round, which was played in the foulest conditions imaginable. It was a monsoon out there and Lyle was stuck right in the middle of it. His round had a train-wreck fascination. Every time the cameras panned to Lyle he was either up to his tonsils in grass or buried at the bottom of a cavernous bunker. When he finally packed it in he was a million over par and utterly miserable.

Unlike Poulter, Lyle offered no excuses. Not to begin with. He said he’d quit not because of an injury but because he was sick of it. For his honesty, he was told by sections of the media and the golfing public that he was a disgrace to golf and that any hopes he had of being a Ryder Cup captain had been destroyed. The establishment absolutely buried him, one newspaper announcing that Lyle should “hang his head in shame”.

The subtext of all this was unmissable. They’d have preferred had Lyle come in pretending to be hurt, even though he wasn’t. Of course everybody would have wanted Lyle to play on, but, once he had made the decision to walk off, the game almost willed him to lie his way out of trouble in the aftermath. One veteran observer – and there were many like him – encapsulated the attitude: “You know Sandy’s problem? He’s too honest for his own good. He didn’t even have the cop-on to invent an injury. You couldn’t have him as Ryder Cup captain.”

That is the way of it. Tell a porky and save yourself some hassle. Everybody will turn a blind eye and we’ll all carry on as before, pretending that there is no chicanery in golf. No doping, no cheating, no gamesmanship and, in this instance, nobody who just has one of those lousy days when all they want to do was get out of there. Nobody is allowed to just quit. It has to be an injury. Or an “injury”.

When McIlroy quit the Honda Classic in Florida last week his first instinct was a Lyle-esque honesty. That was the beginning of his problems. Golf doesn’t like the truth in these circumstances. The establishment would sooner hear fibs. If McIlroy came in afterwards and said that his wrist was sore or his shoulder was hurt or his back was giving him gyp then he’d have stood a better chance of quelling the controversy than admitting the reality, which was that his game was wretched, his head was scrambled and that he’d just had enough for one day.

It was only later that he twigged how these things work in golf. Maybe his management team remembered how Lyle told the truth about his walk-off at Birkdale. Maybe. No player wants the Lyle treatment. Nobody wants to suffer the wrath of one of the game’s great double standards. It’s okay to fib, but hell mend the man who tells it as it is. So, one minute McIlroy was making no excuses for quitting and the next, the wisdom tooth defence was born in some kind of belated and desperately cack-handed attempt to avoid getting monstered.

There would appear to be a wisdom tooth issue, but nobody is buying the line that it was the reason he walked off last week. McIlroy confirmed yesterday that it was no defence. The fact that he felt – or his management company felt – that they needed to change the narrative of his withdrawal illustrates one of the problems with golf. Sometimes the game cannot handle the truth.

McIlroy is a gem for many reasons and one of those reasons is because he is an honest guy who lets you into his world in a way that Tiger Woods never has.

Last week we saw what can happen when McIlroy attempts to be what the game wants him to be, a Master Perfect who wouldn’t dream about walking off a golf course unless he had a medical reason for doing it. Just because he has a divine golf game doesn’t mean he’s a divinity. He makes mistakes just like everybody else.

In trying to cover up the truth last week he tied himself up in knots and became something he isn’t. His initial response to journalists – admitting his head was in the wrong place – was the real McIlroy. The guy we saw yesterday was also the real McIlroy. Likeable, honest and young. Let’s hope he doesn’t emerge from this hubbub thinking that telling the truth is too much trouble sometimes. It’s not just his game that golf needs. It’s his personality.