Anyone remember Rory McIlroy?
Northern Ireland star returns after seven-week injury lay-off, but with so many other stars in the game, he was barely missed
Even during his seven weeks away from competition, Rory McIlroy managed to stay relevant.
He started last week by accepting an invitation to play golf with US president Donald Trump. It was his first 18 holes since he played through a rib injury at the South African Open. McIlroy ended the week by playing a match against Dustin Johnson.
“Quite a week for me,” he said on Tuesday. “I got to play with the president of the United States and the best golfer in the world.”
He returns this week at the Mexico Championship, and this is no time for a siesta.
The Masters – the only major keeping McIlroy from the career grand slam – starts in just over two months. One positive aspect from so much time off so early in the season is that McIlroy has been more consumed with recovering from a hairline fracture of his rib than with his pursuit of an elusive green jacket.
Then again, that time off gave him a good view of the competition.
Consider the last four weeks alone. Hideki Matsuyama won the Phoenix Open for his fifth victory in his last nine tournaments worldwide. Jordan Spieth got back into the race for No 1 when he won Pebble Beach. Johnson reached No 1 the following week with a five-shot lead at Riviera. And then Rickie Fowler showed up last week at the Honda Classic, finished bogey-bogey and still won by four shots.
It’s what led Jack Nicklaus to say on Sunday that he couldn’t recall golf ever being so top-heavy with talent.
“I think you’ve got more good players in the game today – that have a chance to win a major championship – than you’ve ever had in the history of the game,” Nicklaus said. “And I don’t often say that. I mean, we had a pretty good era when I played, not much of an era when Tiger played. Not much of an era when Arnold was playing. And prior to that they had Hogan, Snead, Nelson, which was a pretty good era.
“But not the number that they have today.”
No one has really noticed McIlroy missing because so many top players are winning.
The question is how quickly he can recover.
“I don’t feel that far behind,” McIlroy said. “I come in here this week with a chance to get back to No 1 in the world. But in terms of maybe preparation and just rounds played, I haven’t had that. So hopefully over these next three competitive weeks that I’m playing – here, Bay Hill and Match Play – I can get that. And hopefully, I feel like I’ve played enough to go into Augusta and feel ready.”
The rib injury – he said he hurt it from overuse while testing so much equipment during the off season – cost him four tournaments and came at a bad time. McIlroy had won the FedEx Cup with two big victories, and nearly won in South Africa with a bad rib.
Two years ago, he already had won three times in the first half of the year when he injured his ankle playing soccer and missed two months, which cost him a chance to defend his title in the British Open at St Andrews. That injury was far worse, and it took until the end of the year for him to win again.
“It’s frustrating because I felt like I started the year so well,” McIlroy said.
He said he felt the pain in his rib on Friday but kept playing because he didn’t want to let anyone down. Only when he had tests after the tournament – he lost to Graeme Storm in a play-off – did he realise the extent of it.
McIlroy was only heard from on a few touchy subjects.
First, there was an interview with the Sunday Independent in Ireland in which the 27-year-old from Northern Ireland said he resented how the Olympics forced him to choose whether to represent Ireland or the United Kingdom and it reached a point that it wasn’t worth the trouble going to Rio.
Then, a photo emerged of McIlroy playing golf with Trump. By the end of the week, he had heard enough negativity that he took to Twitter to defend his decision . He said their common ground was golf, nothing more.
“You can respect the guy, not respect the guy, I don’t care,” McIlroy said. “But if someone has a chance to play in that scenario and just sort of experience the whole thing ... it’s not as if we were speaking foreign policy out there. We were talking about golf and the grass that he put on the greens and the grass that he’s putting on the greens at Doral. We talked golf the entire day.”
Asked what he shot at Trump International, McIlroy smiled and said: “I picked up a few times. We both did.”
Every shot counts now. The competition is as good as ever.
The Masters is around the corner.