Rory McIlroy is a changed man since hitting rock bottom last year at this time and this place, the Honda Classic.
The former world No. 1 has returned to PGA National in 2014 with a healthier mind, body, game, and (presumably) teeth, and is determined to make amends for his early withdrawal in 2013. After beginning last year under intense scrutiny for a massive equipment overhaul, McIlroy missed the cut in his first European Tour event, bombed out of match play in the first round, and then came the Honda.
"Coming in here last year, I was coming off the back of a couple of bad results in Abu Dhabi and the [WGC-Accenture] Match Play," McIlroy recalled for reporters on Wednesday on the eve his 12:25 p.m. tee time on No. 1 with Adam Scott and Billy Horschel. "Still getting used to new equipment, high expectations, and not really ... being in control of my game … My game wasn't where I wanted it to be, my mental state wasn't quite where I needed it to be."
While Rory’s back at Palm Beach Gardens, Phil Mickelson reports that his back’s fine as he prepares to ramp up his 2014 season with his first start at the Honda since 2002.
"This feels to me like the start of the year because I feel good, I'm healthy, I'm able to swing it well," Mickelson said in his pre-tourney press conference. "I've had some good practice sessions, I feel strong and ready to play some good golf, and so this kind of feels like the start for me."
His back, which he injured in Abu Dhabi in January, acted up on him last month and he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open and scuffled to a T42 in Scottsdale and a T19 at Pebble Beach. Some treatment on his back and a tuneup session with short-game instructor Dave Stockton, and Lefty was ready to go.
His body was in such good shape, he took to the slopes with his family in Montana over spring break.
"Went skiing and played a little bit of golf back home, getting ready for this stretch, and with the Masters six weeks away, this is kind of where guys like myself and others are getting geared up for that event," he said. "It's important to get competitive, get sharp mentally and focused and play some good golf, get in contention for weeks like this."
For McIlroy, there was no physical issue hampering his golf, but rather the shocking fall from grace he experienced in 2013 after riding his stellar game to his second of two major championships, the top of the world rankings, and Player of the Year in 2012. Business and personal issues contributed to his struggles, all of which came to a head at the Honda.
It’s a new year and McIlroy, who quit the event halfway through his second round 12 months ago believes he owes a debt to the tournament he stiffed when he walked off with his ball in the water and a scorecard indicating 7-over after eight holes for the day. The two-time major champion said his psyche just could not take it anymore.
"It was just one of these days, I just felt like I couldn't cope with anything more, especially not the way I was heading, I was going to shoot 90," McIlroy said. "The last thing I needed."
McIlroy initially blamed his mental status for his actions, but later changed his official story to a bum tooth, which did not go over well with the golf world. One year past the nadir of his young career and the golfer his mates tapped as "the next Tiger Woods" has a more mature perspective on golf and life, both of which are going pretty well.
The 24-year-old Palm Beach Gardens resident apologized last year after his tantrum, took the heat again on Wednesday and, again, pledged he had learned his lesson.
"You should never walk off the golf course, no matter how bad things are," he said. "But I've learnt from it and I've moved on. Yeah, I mean, it wasn't my finest hour, but at the end of the day, everyone makes mistakes ... It definitely won’t happen again."
McIlroy enters the week with his game in decent shape, after beating Scott in the Australian Open and earning a T17 in match play. While there may still be non-golf distractions such as disagreements with his former management company heading to court, McIlroy ended tabloid speculation about his private life by getting engaged in December to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
"I'm much more comfortable. I'm in a better place, and I feel like when my game is in a good place, everything else can sort of fall in line with that," McIlroy said. "It makes me feel more comfortable about everything."