SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – From his couch he watched the Open Championship unfold and attention spans wandered.
It wasn’t jealousy or even envy, as if the man that has everything would covet another’s prize; but for Rory McIlroy, the evolving narrative in golf over the last five weeks has been a study in mob mentality.
For nearly a year, McIlroy’s hold on the heavyweight crown had been undisputed and unchallenged. Even when Jordan Spieth won the Masters this spring, the Northern Irishman answered with victories of his own at the WGC-Match Play and Wells Fargo Championship.
Not long after Spieth’s second consecutive major victory at the U.S. Open, however, short attention spans and the desire for instant analysis began to change the conversation. And when McIlroy severely injured his left ankle playing soccer with friends on July 6, the world No. 1 officially became an afterthought, however temporarily.
“We live in such a world that everything's so reactionary and everything happens so quickly that a year ago after I won this tournament it was the Rory era and then Jordan wins the Masters and it's the Jordan era,” McIlroy said on Wednesday at the PGA Championship. “Eras last about six months these days instead of 20 years.”
If McIlroy’s take sounds bitter, it’s not.
If he sounds a touch put out over the attention Spieth has now garnered, he’s not.
To be clear, Spieth is “taking up a lot of the limelight this year which is deservedly so,” McIlroy said.
But it’s just as clear that the world No. 1 – and he is still the world No. 1, at least until Sunday – did not go on the disabled list quietly.
The same internal dialogue that drove McIlroy to two majors last season has been a tortured companion over the last five weeks of relative inactivity, repeatedly reminding himself that it’s not the limelight he seeks as much as it is all the accomplishments that land a champion at center stage.
Not playing the Open Championship at St. Andrews, his favorite major venue, was so offensive he told friends and family he wouldn’t watch the event on television. He did tune in for most of the final round, but he didn’t like it.
That desire is virtually impossible to temper, driving Rory during the best of times to be unbeatable but also beckoning him back when things aren’t ideal, like the last five weeks of rehabilitation.
No athlete has ever come back too late from an injury, a truth that remains undefeated, despite McIlroy’s objections.
McIlroy’s injury, which was a total rupture of the anterior talo-fibular ligament along with joint capsule damage, is an ailment that normally requires a six- to eight-week recovery.
“An average person that goes to the physio three times a week will probably take between six and eight weeks,” McIlroy said. “Maybe I was one or two weeks ahead of what I was told at the start, but I don't think that's any surprise, given this day and age and everything that is at our disposal in terms of treatment and machines and everything.”
McIlroy is not an “average person,” but he’s not super human either.
The swing looks solid, and after arriving at Whistling Straits last Saturday he certainly appears up to the physical challenge of playing the year’s final major, but there are always unforeseen dangers when dealing with injuries.
“I just get worried sometimes when people get injured and come back a little early because sometimes it can snowball and go other places and it may start in an ankle, it could go to a knee, or could go to a hip, it could go to the back,” said Jason Day, who has dealt with more than his share of injuries in his career.
It’s called the kinetic chain, which is trainer speak for injuries or weaknesses in one part of the body, say the left ankle, that can slowly manifest itself in other areas, such as a right hip ailment, or worse it could even cause slight swing adjustments that will be hard to break over time.
It’s likely a conversation McIlroy has had with his trainer Steve McGregor, but knowing the road to take and veering down the correct path are two different things.
Keeping the proverbial racehorse in the stable is always difficult, but to put the climb McIlroy will face this week in context he’s being asked to save Game 7 of the World Series straight off the DL.
He played 72 holes in four days last week in Portugal to test his mended ankle, but he still hasn’t hit a meaningful shot since the final round at Chambers Bay in June.
To be fair, McIlroy has earned the benefit of the doubt considering how well he’s handled adversity throughout his career and he’s proven himself mature beyond his 26 years.
“When you're playing week in, week out and you're thinking about winning these tournaments, you get so wrapped up in what you're doing and your own little life and your own little bubble, sometimes you forget there's a bigger wider world out there,” he said. “That's something that I can bring in with me this week, knowing that, OK, it's a big deal, but no matter what happens this week, only a very small percentage of the population really care.”
Of course, proving to that slice of the audience that does care he is still very much a part of the conversation would also be OK.