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When the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer walked off the course during the second round of the Honda Classic March 1, critics pounced. Rory McIlroy had faced fevered international scrutiny before, especially after his final round collapse at the Masters in 2011. But this was different. Headlines dubbed him “petulant” and mocked his supposed toothache as “teething,” a not-so-veiled charge of immaturity.
Such scorn stemmed from what seemed apparent to onlookers: In the face of a triple-bogey, double-bogey, and two bogeys, McIlroy had simply quit. Disjointed statements about being “not in a good place mentally” and later complaining of wisdom tooth pain smacked of lame excuses. Fans traveled long distances and bought tickets to see the 23-year-old prodigy play. He owed it to them to finish the round.
Of course, McIlroy is not required to face such a life in the proverbial fishbowl. The way out is simple: Be mediocre. No criticism hounded England’s Brian Davis after he withdrew from the same tournament prematurely. Who’s Brian Davis, you ask? Exactly.
McIlroy has a decision to make: Keep pursuing greatness and learn to carry the attending pressure and responsibility or step aside and enjoy a quieter life in the shadow of the man he grew up idolizing. That man, Tiger Woods, appears ready to reclaim the mantle of world’s best golfer, and the spotlight that goes along with it. Woods knows just how hot the glare of that light can be. He faced its worst as details of his many extramarital trysts were exposed during a very public divorce. But if five PGA Tour victories over the last calendar year is any indication, Woods has made his choice. He won’t be fading from view.
Beginning April 11, the demanding greens of Augusta National will provide a prime occasion for McIlroy to make his choice just as clear. Woods will be out to reassert his dominance and claim his fifth Masters Tournament crown. For McIlroy, every poor shot will be scrutinized, every reaction to a missed putt closely examined. The young Irishman has the swing to challenge Woods, to prove that he is truly the world’s new No. 1. But that role brings pain—and quite a bit more than aching teeth.
When his brother died in a car accident almost four years ago, Josh Willingham became a better hitter. Now with the Minnesota Twins, the 33-year-old outfielder hit 35 home runs last year and batted in 110 runs, the third-highest total in the American League. In 2009, though, he had to leave his team for 10 days, in the middle of the season, to return home and mourn with family.
Willingham says God used the death of his brother to get his attention and put his priorities back in order: “It put everything in perspective. To be honest, baseball was number one in my life before that happened. It wasn’t number one after. It was right where it was supposed to be—number three or four.”
The best two months of Willingham’s career came when he returned to baseball after those 10 days—not because he was any better physically, he says, but because his spiritual priorities had been adjusted. Freshly freed from the enslaving idol of baseball, he was now ready to enjoy the game in its proper place.
Injuries have also taught a lesson to the slugger from Florence, Ala. At one point he was “one injury away from back surgery,” which could have meant the end of his career: “It puts things in perspective. You have to lean on God.”