McIlroy won the PGA Championship by a record eight shots last year, making him the youngest player since Seve Ballesteros in 1980 to win two majors. McIlroy won the U.S. Open in 2011 by eight shots with a record score.
Nike introduced him with blaring music and a laser show in Abu Dhabi, but it's been all downhill from there.
After rounds of 75-75 in Abu Dhabi, he took a four-week break and spent time with tennis girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. He was eliminated at Match Play in a sloppy performance by both of them. McIlroy returned to Florida and played 36 holes with Woods at The Medalist.
He said on Tuesday that it was no time to panic so early in the season.
"Even though my results haven't revealed it, I really felt like I was rounding a corner," McIlroy said. "This is one of my favorite tournaments of the year and I regret having to make the decision to withdraw, but it was one I had to make."
It looked more like McIlroy was sinking than rounding the corner, not difficult to do on a course with so many water hazards. And he found plenty of them.
McIlroy, who opened with a 70, hit two poor chips that led to double bogey on No. 11, and a wild tee shot to the right led to a bogey on the 13th. His round really unraveled on the par-4 16th, when he hit his tee shot to the right and into the water, took a penalty drop and then came up short of the green and into the water again on his way to a triple bogey. He three-putted from 40 feet on the 17th, running his first putt about 10 feet by the hole, for a bogey to go 7 over.
And then came the approach on the 18th that found water for the third time on his short day.
McIlroy is scheduled to play next week in the Cadillac Championship at Doral, which has no cut, and then the Houston Open. But on the first day of March, he left having completed only round of competition.
"I didn't think much of the equipment change. We've all made equipment changes before," said Els, who has used three brands of clubs to win majors. "I think there was a bit of criticism somewhere, and then I think he's further responding to that, and I think he's got a bit of pressure coming on him that way. I thought he played quite well yesterday. I thought he was pretty close to playing good golf, and unfortunately this morning ... hopefully he gets it together. We've got next week, got four rounds there. Such a talented player. He'll get it figured out."
Geoff Ogilvy always preached caution about rushing to judgment of Boy Wonder. A year ago, McIlroy missed the cut in four out of five tournaments, including the U.S. Open. He won four times from August to November, including the PGA and two FedEx Cup playoff events.
"Everyone is being a little hard on the equipment," Ogilvy said. "He has a plan. He had a plan last year, and it all worked out for him. He had a rubbish year, really, until late summer. In May, everyone was throwing him under the bus and everyone was claiming him at the end of the year.
"He'll probably go win the Masters by eight and we'll all go, 'He knew what he was doing.' "
It was the second straight year one of golf's biggest stars failed to finish a tournament on the Florida swing. Woods withdrew after 11 holes on the final round at Doral last year because of tightness in his Achilles tendon, raising questions about the seriousness of his recurring leg injuries. He won Bay Hill two weeks later.