Rory McIlroy delighted to be back in the swing of things again

World No 1 to make his tournament debut at the famous Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth

Rory McIlroy talks to  Sergio Garcia  during a practice round for the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas on Wednesday. Photograph: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy talks to Sergio Garcia during a practice round for the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas on Wednesday. Photograph: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

 

You couldn’t accuse Rory McIlroy of being idle in the three months since his reign as world number one was put in cold storage. For one, he’s got a tan of sorts.

“It’s probably the most tanned my pasty Irish skin has ever been,” he quipped, although regular practice rounds with the likes of Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Shane Lowry in recent weeks would perhaps give a greater sense of where the Northern Irishman’s work lay ahead of the return of the PGA Tour with the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Texas on Thursday.

As he ever is when turning up at any tournament, McIlroy is the headline act in the PGA Tour’s return – with no crowds – to the circuit. All five of the world’s top-ranked players are in the field, with McIlroy, making his tournament debut at a historic course forever associated with the legendary Ben Hogan, hoping that those money matches with his peers will ensure sharpness on his return to action.

“I tried to play with really high-calibre players all the time and see where everything measured up against them and tried to get sharp. I played a lot more than I practiced over the last few weeks, I wanted to hit the ground running once I got here to Colonial,” said McIlroy, whose run of form earlier in the season saw him go 3rd-5th-5th-5th in his four outings before the shutdown.

“I feel like my game is pretty sharp. Nothing can compare to getting out there and playing under tournament conditions but, as far as I’m concerned, I’m as sharp as I can be coming in.”

Although a bit of poolside tanning, jigsaws and some Peleton work on the bike occupied some of his time away from the sport, McIlroy confessed: “I sort of realised over the three months, I like golf and golf has given me a lot of great things, but the thing that I missed the most was the competition.

“I was very happy to put the clubs away for a few weeks, but once you sort of saw the light at the end of the tunnel and you knew what you were practicing for and getting up for and preparing for, that’s when you sort of start to get those feelings back again.”

The Colonial is the first of four tournaments behind closed doors on the PGA Tour before crowds will return, with an expected 20 per cent capacity, at the Memorial next month. Further down the line, the big question remains over whether the Ryder Cup scheduled for September at Whistling Straits will go ahead. “Obviously playing in front of no fans at a Ryder Cup is very different than playing in front of no fans at a tour event. I’m pretty sure they won’t carry on without spectators,” said McIlroy.

For this return to tournament competition, the absence of spectators is, as McIlroy put it: “It’ll be slightly different. It’ll be a little eerie that you’re not getting claps and you’re not getting feedback from good shots and stuff like that. But I think at the same time, it’s what we have to do. It’s what we’re going to have to live with for the foreseeable future, and if that’s what I have to adapt to to be able to get out here and play on tour and get back to work essentially.”

On an aside, McIlroy also believed the Covid-19 pandemic could well influence the direction of professional golf going forward.

“I think this pandemic has highlighted the fact that the game of golf at the highest level needs to be simplified. I think there’s too many funnels, there’s too many channels. I don’t know if everything being under one umbrella is the solution, but definitely fewer umbrellas I think is a way forward. And I think the Major championship organisations and the bigger governing bodies in the game of golf have realised that there’s so many moving parts. I think more cohesion in the game is better.”

That competitive needle required to succeed was also evident in Brooks Koepka’s assessment of returning to tournament life, with McIlroy very much in his sights. “I’ve got eyes on Rory. That’s the goal, to get back to number one in the world. That’s the whole point of playing is to be the best.

“If I do what I’m supposed to do, if I take care of my business, then I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t get back to that. I dug myself a hole, obviously, getting injured and then when I started back up the first three months of back playing or two months back playing. I dug myself a little bit of a hole. But you play good, you win, everything will take care of itself.”

And Koepka – with Portrush native Ricky Elliott on his bag – doesn’t expect to keep his bagman at any distance, despite the PGA Tour encouraging social distancing.

“The way I look at it, me and my caddie, I’m going to do the same things to my caddie that I’ve been doing my entire career. You look at any other sport, I’m pretty sure LeBron James isn’t going to worry about setting a pick when there’s contact about social distancing. Football you’re not going to worry about tackling a guy because of social distancing.

“It’s just one of those things. Like my caddie has been at my house quite a bit. He’s staying with me this week, and I have no problem standing right next to [him]. He’s been tested, I’ve been tested a couple times. It’s part of, I guess, the sport.”

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