Tiger Woods may be nine shots off the lead after shooting a second consecutive even-par 70 at the Honda Classic, but at least he’ll be around for the weekend.
It’s not often that Woods plays second fiddle to anyone on, or off, the course, no matter how many birdies or double-bogeys he’s racking up. But that’s exactly the role the former No. 1 found himself in after good buddy Rory McIlroy quit the tournament following eight holes of miserable, 7-over golf on what was a truly weird day in southern Florida.
Woods had an okay start, with birdies on four and five. As he did on Thursday, he found the water off the tee on No. 6, but was unable to go barefoot in after it and had to settle for a bogey.
He made a complete hash of the par-4 13th after his tee shot nestled into a buried lie in the left fairway bunker. With 138 yards to the green, his approach shot fell short into the front left sand. His third shot flew the green and he went on to card a double-bogey.
After finding just six fairways and 11 greens in regulation, Woods finished the day at even -- well off the pace set by a sizzling Luke Guthrie, who fired a 7-under 63.
"I didn’t hit the ball anywhere near as good as I did yesterday," Woods said after his round, "but I putted well and, ironically enough, the same score."
Woods began last year’s final round nine shots back before firing his best closing score ever, a 62, which was just two shots shy of catching McIlroy for the title.
"There’s 70-plus guys within nine shots of the lead," Woods said. "Anybody in this tournament can win it."
Still, the day was really not about Tiger, who’s taken his share of abuse for retiring early from events (the most recent being from the 2012 WGC-Cadillac Championship -- up next week on the PGA Tour schedule). Friday, though, the drama centered on McIlroy, who claimed at first his head was not in the game and said later that a bad tooth forced him out.
While observers wondered if Rory needed a dentist’s touch or a stint on the couch, what was certain was that McIlroy hit his second shot into the water on the par-5 eighth, shook hands with playing partners Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, handed Wilson his scorecard, and made his way, near tears, according to Golfweek, to the parking lot. There, he told reporters he was "not in a good place mentally," which sparked a cacophony of criticism usually reserved for his boyhood idol, Mr. Woods.
McIlroy’s eventual statement that blamed his poor round and uncharacteristic displays of pique on a sore wisdom tooth was met with skepticism, especially after Els and Wilson said they were unaware of their opponent’s problems.
Els initially called McIlroy out for leaving but cut him some slack for trying to play through the discomfort.
''I'm a great fan of Rory's, but I don't think that was the right thing to do,'' Els told reporters about McIlroy’s abrupt departure. He quickly shifted gears, however.
''If something was bothering him, it was bothering him and all credit to him trying to play through whatever pain he was in," he said. "He obviously couldn't do it after nine holes anymore. Toothache, it's not fun I guess."
Wilson was similarly in the dark.
''I didn't notice anything,'' Wilson said. ''He wasn't playing the way the world No. 1 plays normally. Didn't hit the ball where he wanted to....He was upset with his golf and I guess he had enough for the week."
McIlroy knew there’d be days like this when he so spectacularly ditched Titleist for a reported $200 million contract from Nike -- especially after a career year in 2012 when he won a second major and ascended to the top of the world rankings. Following a missed cut in Abu Dhabi to start his season, a first-round match-play loss last weekend, and now his withdrawal, the arbiters were out in full force.
Several pundits called the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland a quitter, some wondered about issues in his not-so-private life (girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki suffered a shocking defeat on the tennis court just 48 hours earlier), and others were ready to pounce anew on him for his drastic equipment change.
Graeme McDowell came to his countryman’s defense.
"He’s under so much scrutiny right now, so many question marks around what he’s done going with Nike," McDowell said. "But he’s one of the most phenomenal players I’ve ever seen. It’s only a matter of time before he settles and starts to get his belief level back and stops trying to prove to the world that he’s still got it and start showing the world."
Assuming the Advil has kicked in, McIlroy will have that opportunity as early as next week at Doral, where he can look forward to four straight rounds in the no-cut event.
As for Woods, he appeared for much of the day as if he might be ready to join his young rival for a return engagement of last week’s unofficial match-play final at Medalist GC. Instead, he’ll tee off far out of the spotlight at 8:15 a.m. ET on Saturday with the immortal David Lynn. Not exactly the head-to-head match-up with No. 1 that golf fans -- and NBC -- had envisioned after last year’s thrilling finish.