Out of Bounds: Lay-off may prove blessing in disguise for Rory McIlroy
Rib injury might have peversely given him best preparation for Masters assault
Rory McIlroy makes his return to action in this week’s WGC-Mexico Championship. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty
It’s an ill wind and all that . . . . . because it could yet be that Rory McIlroy’s rib injury - which forced him to miss four scheduled tournaments from a carefully mapped out itinerary - may prove to be the best piece of (accidental) planning in that single-minded focus for the career Grand Slam: the US Masters, the only box he has yet to tick, is only a month away.
He’s climbed over a wall of sorts to be back this week for the WGC-Mexico Championship; and, straight away, he has put all that hoopla about playing golf with Donald Trump to bed, a round of golf - infamous in some eyes but not his - in its proper place. It happened, he enjoyed it, he can see why some couldn’t understand it, but it’s time to move on.
The fact of the matter is that few golfers generate quite as much global interest as McIlroy, on or off the course. When he twirls the club after the perfect connect, it’s an iconic action, one that goes side-by-side with that confident walk of his.
The fact of the matter is that the stress fracture to his rib - which led to him missing two events on the European Tour, the Abu Dhabi Championship and the Dubai Desert Classic, and another two on the PGA Tour, the Genesis Open and the Honda Classic - has resulted in him playing less golf than originally planned when he mapped out his pre-Masters schedule.
Maybe that’s no bad thing, though.
For sure, the golfing landscape has changed quite dramatically since that MRI scan in Dubai in January revealed the full extent of the injury. Dustin Johnson has scaled the heights to become world number one, his win in the Genesis Open his fourth worldwide in the past nine months. Jordan Spieth has won in Pebble Beach. Rickie Fowler won the Honda Classic. Form horses.
All rivals, all in form; but nothing to scare McIlroy, who at various times admitted to being “bored” in his recovery time away from competition.
Yet, there’s a degree of diligence about McIlroy: away from prying eyes, he went about his business at The Bears club in Florida working with putter and wedges before going all out with the driver. Dr Steve McGregor oversaw the recovery process. Michael Bannon, his swing coach, and Phil Kenyon, the putting guru, were on hand.
Last Saturday he had a shoot-out with DJ, outdrove him a number of times, and shot a 65. On Monday, he played in the pro-member at the exclusive Seminole club where apparently his first tee shot was a high, draw which reached the front of the green 390 yards away. As Smylie Kaufman, who played with him, put it, McIlroy was “smoking” his drives.
Late last year, after winning the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour, McIlroy had mapped out a pre-Masters schedule that packed in more tournaments than he’d previously done through the years in working out how to put the pieces of the jigsaw together so that the big picture would fall into place on a Sunday afternoon at Augusta National in April. Each time, the different methods had failed him.
Now, very much by accident, it could be that McIlroy has stumbled onto the best plan of all. He has played just two tournaments in 17 weeks, but he’s been here before in recovering from his ankle injury in the middle of the 2015 season. That was worse, for it cost him the chance to defend his British Open title.
Now, his reappearance in Mexico is a new start in building-up to the Masters.
This time, the lay-off - inconvenient at the time - may prove to be something of a blessing.
After all, it was none other than McIlroy’s new golfing buddy Donald Trump who remarked: “What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate.”