PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLORIDA | Come on now, let’s give the lad a break. Only his dentist knows for certain whether Rory McIlroy walked off the PGA National course last Friday with a wisdom toothache that ended his stay at the Honda Classic after 26 holes, the last ugly eight played in 7 over. He obviously was going to miss the cut, and if his tooth was as painful as he later described in a written statement, better to head home and seek relief with novocaine and a drill instead of a few more swings and putts. Still over the next two days, McIlroy, No. 1 in the world rankings and the defending Honda champion, was being poked and prodded by far more than his friendly neighborhood oral surgeon. My old Washington Post colleague Tony Kornheiser couldn’t help himself on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption,” where he described the walk-off as a tooth fairy tale and a “made-up excuse.” All the while, pictures of toothless hockey players showed up on the screen. Sports radio talk shows coast to coast also helped ignite the usual debate about golfers not really being athletes, though those with the shortest of memories might well recall Tiger Woods winning that 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines essentially playing on one leg for 91 holes. Truth be told, McIlroy did bring some of this on himself. As he walked off the course and headed to the parking lot after dunking his second shot into the water guarding the 18th green, McIlroy told several reporters, “There’s not much I can really say. I’m not in a good place mentally, you know.” Asked specifically at that point if there was anything wrong physically, he said, “No.” How about his swing? “I really don’t know what’s going on.” Therein lies the (pardon the expression) root cause of the criticism, if only because McIlroy’s prepared statement on his dental problem didn’t come out for another two hours. Of course, it sounded sincere, even if his playing partners Ernie Els and Mark Wilson insisted that McIlroy had never told either one of them about what was apparently ailing him. At first, Els was critical of McIlroy’s exit, saying, “I’m a great fan of Rory. But I don’t think that was the right thing to do.” Then he got a bit more politically correct toward his fellow professional. “Listen, if something was bothering him, you know, it was bothering him and all credit to him trying to play through whatever pain he was in,” Els said. “He obviously couldn’t do it after nine holes. Toothache, it’s not fun, I guess. He’s feeling terrible about it. I know he is. That’s the last thing he wants to do is walk off… I’ve played like that before. It’s embarrassing. You don’t want to be out there while you feel like, ‘Get me out of here.’ ” What’s been mostly embarrassing for McIlroy lately has been his dismal start to the 2013 season. He posted 75-75 in Abu Dhabi and missed the cut. Two weeks ago, he was bounced from the WGC-Accenture Match Play in the first round. He finished his opening even-par 70 at Honda with a bogey at the 18th, and then came a triple-bogey, a double-bogey and two more bogeys on his initial nine Friday before his water ball at 18 and subsequent decision to leave the premises. The suspicion, of course, is what’s really bothering McIlroy may be the adjustment to his new Nike equipment after his offseason switch from Titleist to The Swoosh Brigade for a reported $20 million a year. That kind of money can pay for all manner of dental work, but changing clubs and golf balls also can play far more significant mind games over the state of his swing with the new tools in his bag. Before the tournament, McIlroy denied that was a factor in his poor start, saying, “I knew it was going to be a bit of a process and I knew there was going to be some comments if it didn’t happen for me right away. I’m only two tournaments into the season. I’ve got more than 20 to go. So it’s not like I’m pushing for answers. Everything’s there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.” The telling comment came a few questions later. “It’s more about how I’m swinging the club,” he said. “If you put my swing now up against the way I was swinging it last year, it’s chalk and cheese. That’s the real thing I’m working on.” All that being said, let’s give the kid a free pass this time. After all, he’s been an absolute 23-year-old delight with his fellow players, fans and the media both before and after he vaulted to the No. 1 position a year ago at this very same event. He always signs autographs. He has a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s a joy to his playing partners in pro-ams, a great ambassador for his game and a young man who should occupy that same exalted status for years to come. Achy teeth come and go. The good news is that Rory McIlroy should be here to stay.