When Rory McIlroy returned from an eight-week layoff in August, one of the biggest questions surrounding the former world No. 1 was whether his full swing would be affected by his rehabbed left ankle.
The short answer: No.
Whereas McIlroy has been in the top 10 in the PGA Tour's strokes gained-tee to green statistic in four of his five starts since the injury, he has lingered near the bottom of the standings in putting. In fact, in three of those five events, he has been ranked 67th or worse among those who made the cut.
It’s the main reason why he has yet to seriously challenge for a title.
McIlroy will look to solve his putting woes this week at the European Tour’s Turkish Airlines Open, where he starts a run of three events in a four-week stretch to close out a year that has been, in succession, promising, frustrating and humbling.
“I feel like my game is gradually getting back to where I want to be,” he told reporters Wednesday. “The last couple of times I’ve played I’ve been frustrated because I feel like it’s very close and I feel like I’m not able to get what I want out of myself.”
The good news for McIlroy is that his fitness is “totally fine,” and an immediate return to elite-level ball-striking suggests that his ankle injury won’t pose any issues long term.
His putting has been another story. When we last saw McIlroy, at the Frys, where he tied for 26th, he said he wasn't struggling because of a technical or feel issue on the greens.
“I think it’s more mental than anything else,” he said. “Whenever you don’t see anything go in, it makes it harder and harder each and every hole that goes by.”
After a week of practice in Dubai, McIlroy, who hasn't won since May, said that his game is “definitely” heading in the right direction.
“I definitely wouldn’t call what I went through a low,” he told reporters Wednesday. “Everyone goes through injuries and those things happen. But I don’t feel like I’ve lost my game that much. I haven’t dropped.”
His appearance this week in Turkey is a reminder that McIlroy needed a little help just to play.
Though he is still No. 1 in the points standings, McIlroy has played only nine events this season – well below the European Tour requirement of 13 – and would have been ineligible for the Final Series. New tour CEO Keith Pelley, citing “exceptional circumstances,” granted McIlroy a free pass into the four-tournament Final Series.
With three events left – Turkey, Shanghai, Dubai – McIlroy said that a Race to Dubai title wouldn’t significantly alter what has been a “lost” year, because of the majors, but ending 2015 with four or five overall titles wouldn’t be a total loss.
“That’s still pretty good,” he said, “and would give me some momentum and some positives going into next year.”