MEXICO CITY – Since losing a playoff in January at the BMW SA Open, Rory McIlroy has spent a lot of time working on his short game and having lunches – so many lunches.
He dined with Tiger Woods last week in South Florida, USGA executive director Mike Davis a few days later and played a casual round with President Donald Trump, anything to keep his mind off the fact that what he does, what motivates him to begin each day, was out of his reach, however temporarily.
A hairline rib fracture was the culprit, an injury that crept up on the Northern Irishman and demanded total inactivity, at least as far as his golf was concerned.
He could work on his short game, but nothing else. So instead he focused on the routine.
“Get up early in the morning, do my rehab stuff, try to get out and see what I could do on the golf course, get back, have some treatment, do a few more exercises,” he said this week at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
That routine was repeated daily for the last four weeks, all the while those who consider Rory a contemporary plodded along. Justin Thomas began the year with back-to-back titles in Hawaii, Jordan Spieth got on the board at Pebble Beach and Dustin Johnson won a walk-off in Los Angeles to ascend to the top of the World Ranking.
“It's been frustrating because I felt like I started the year so well with playing well in South Africa and then I felt it [his rib injury] on the Friday afternoon,” McIlroy said. “It was frustrating, especially at the start of the season when I felt like I was playing well.”
The competitor within McIlroy waited anxiously until he finally was fit enough to join the action, and arrived in Mexico for the year’s first World Golf Championship with understandably measured expectations.
He would have been forgiven for even lowered expectations given a fitful night before his return that saw him awake at 3 a.m. and, well ... “worshiping the porcelain bowl.”
It could have been food poisoning, it could have been a stomach virus, for McIlroy it really didn’t matter as he set out for his marquee round on Thursday with Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama.
Unlike most of the power players in this week’s field, McIlroy took a decidedly aggressive approach at Club de Golf Chapultepec, a 7,330-yard layout that wasn’t playing nearly that long because of the elevation (7,500 feet). The world No. 3 hit driver five times, four more than Johnson, on his opening nine and posted a quiet 1-under total at the turn.
But it was his driver at his 15th hole of the day, the par-5 sixth, that gave McIlroy, and anyone keeping tabs at home, reason to think that despite his month and a half on the DL he was closer to mid-season form than even he might have expected.
His drive sailed 368 yards through the thin air and from the left rough he launched a 4-iron 256 yards to 28 feet, setting up an eagle putt that moved him into the top 10 at 3 under par.
“I felt like I could have been a couple better going into the par 5, the sixth hole,” he said. “I actually thought the tee shot was further left than it was. I got away with it and was able to get something up there onto the green and that was a bonus to make eagle there. I'm glad that I only had three holes left after that, I was sort of lagging on the way in.”
If McIlroy was mildly surprised by his solid start, Johnson certainly wasn’t. DJ played a match against McIlroy in South Florida during one of those practice rounds last Saturday, a match that saw Rory post a 65 in just his second round following his rehab assignment.
“It didn't seem like he missed a beat. I played with him on Saturday, he was hitting it fine, hitting it really good,” said Johnson, who opened with a 1-under 70.
McIlroy’s 3-under 68 was a sign of progress by any measure considering what he was up against on Thursday, but after being haunted by inactivity for the last six weeks it was how his body responded that gave Rory a reason to be a little more optimistic.
“The rib's fine. It's great actually, how I responded over the last couple of weeks,” he said. “I've been out to practice and then played my first full competitive round out there today, I didn't feel it at all, so it's all positive.”
Although he appeared a tad ashen given his condition, McIlroy’s demeanor was noticeably upbeat following his opening effort. He will continue to ease his way back into the competitive landscape, careful not to push too hard too early, but there is a limit to his patience.
He’s watched for too long as others have traded the spotlight.