MIAMI -- If you watched Rory McIlroy's press conference here Wednesday, you heard him take full responsibility for quitting at the Honda Classic last week. You heard him say he is trying to get his old swing back, and that his painful wisdom tooth is a problem but not the problem.
You heard him praise the Nike equipment he hasn't used very well, and you heard him patiently and warmly answer every question, even the one about whether he is struggling because he is breaking up with his tennis star girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki. Questions don't get much more personal than that. It was the last question of the morning. But that wasn't the end for McIlroy. It was just the end of the press conference.
He walked out, posed for pictures with a group of kids from The First Tee Miami, signed autographs, and made small talk ... all while news cameras continued to film him and media members continued to hover. And when that was over, as McIlroy started to scurry to wherever he was due next, the kids said in unison:
"Good luck and play well!"
McIlroy smiled and thanked them.
It never ends for McIlroy. This is a lesson he is learning, quickly but painfully. Every day when he wakes up, he is a story. Every night when he goes to sleep, he will wake up to another opinion about him.
The hardest question for him now is not about withdrawing from the Honda Classic. He messed up and admitted it. That controversy will fade. The hardest question is not about the pressure of being No. 1, or his love life, or his new Nike equipment or his swing.
The hardest question is this:
How does he change his life without losing himself?
McIlroy still seems like the kid from Northern Ireland who wants to play golf all day and watch Manchester United at night. This is the beautiful thing about him. Rarely has the No. 1 player in any sport looked like he was having so much fun.
LeBron James seemed a bit overwhelmed by the expectations for him, and he has adjusted and become remarkably businesslike. Sidney Crosby plays with an edge; hockey demands that. When the moment is right, Serena Williams is hypercompetitive, to the point of snapping at umpires and berating herself. The great NFL quarterbacks, from Aaron Rodgers to Tom Brady to Peyton Manning, openly demand greatness from their teammates and themselves.
McIlroy's appeal is that he plays extraordinary golf with the joy of a weekend golfer. He almost missed his Sunday tee time at the Ryder Cup (haven't we all done that?), laughed it off and won his match. When he collapsed at the Masters two years ago, he sheepishly admitted he collapsed and acted like there was no reason to worry, because it wasn't like this was his real job or something. Of course, it is his real job. And two months later he crushed the field at the U.S. Open.
He will grow up and evolve. We all do. But how can he do that, and deal with the pressure of fame and success, without losing his sense of self?
One of McIlroy's most endearing moments Wednesday was when he said he won't get his wisdom tooth removed until he gets to his dentist in Northern Ireland, because that dentist "is the only guy that I would trust to take it out." You know, South Florida may be better known for its palm trees, arms dealers, drug runners, women in bikinis and basketball stars, but I'm pretty sure McIlroy could find a dentist who knows how to take out a wisdom tooth. We're not talking about a heart transplant here.
But McIlroy wants his dentist from home, not a dentist to the stars. He has been blissfully open with the media since he became a star, and he promised that will continue. This is good for people like me, of course, but more than that, it's who McIlroy is. If he stops trusting the media, it will be a sign that he is losing his trust in the world at large. And that would be sad for everybody.
"Look, we -- as in me and you guys -- are hopefully going to have a working relationship for the next 20 years, so I don't want to jeopardize that by being closed," he said. "I don't want it to be that way where there's friction between me and the press."
In the last week, McIlroy made a bad impromptu decision to with draw from a tournament, and several admirable well-thought-out decisions in the fallout. He blamed himself in his first interview, with SI's Michael Bamberger. He blamed himself Wednesday, convincingly. He kept his poise and acknowledged the questions were all fair. He did not bristle at any of the criticism. He admitted he is putting too much pressure on himself, and that's not helping.
The simple advice for McIlroy -- the advice that I want to give, as a member of the "working" press -- is to be honest. But even that isn't really simple advice. Let's say, for example, that McIlroy really is struggling with his new Nike equipment.
He can't admit it's the equipment because that would turn the heat up another 30 degrees. Every press conference would begin with questions like "Rory, you said you don't really like your Nike equipment ..." And McIlroy could say that he never said he didn't like the equipment, just that it was a struggle to get comfortable, but that wouldn't matter. A storyline like that gets legs and runs a marathon.
He can't admit it's the equipment because he would sound like he was blaming somebody else. Many in the media would wonder why McIlroy can't take responsibility for his own struggles. Ten thousand hackers who can't afford the newest technology would roll their eyes. They're golf clubs, dude. Swing them.
Mostly, though, he can't admit it's the equipment because Nike is paying him a fortune to use the equipment and say it is awesome. The exact numbers aren't clear -- people have latched onto the $250 million figure that was floated, but we tend to latch onto big, round numbers. Anyway, it's a fortune.
And for that kind of cash, McIlroy damn well better say he loves the equipment. Otherwise, it would be like Albert Pujols saying he doesn't feel so great about working for the Angels. At that price, you better smile for the company photos.
McIlroy insists the Nike equipment is wonderful. He says the ball is great ("I'm a big believer") and the clubs are terrific. Anyway, if he is really struggling with them, it will be a temporary struggle. Equipment is so advanced now, and Nike is so determined to help McIlroy succeed, that he will figure it out.
The only way McIlroy's game will really slip is if he loses his incredible feel and confidence, and that will only happen if he isn't sure of himself. Golf is such a mental challenge. That's why, more than in most sports, the personal and professional are intertwined. When McIlroy addresses the ball, he has to be confident about who he is. Good luck, Rory, and play well.