It appears increasingly likely that Rory McIlroy isn’t going to give up his No. 1 ranking to Jordan Spieth without a fight, with all signs pointing to a McIlroy return at next week’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
McIlroy has been sidelined since rupturing ligaments in his left ankle while playing soccer with friends July 4. That meant he couldn’t defend his title at the British Open at St. Andrews, on a course he loves. He again missed out on a title defense at this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone South in Akron, Ohio.
But now it appears the long-hitting wonder from Northern Ireland is ready to come back at Whistling, another course he seems to enjoy. (He tied for third at the 2010 PGA.) On Wednesday, McIlroy posted video of himself working out, his Nike-clad feet (including an unwrapped left ankle) balanced on foam pads as he throws a medicine ball from right to left. On Thursday he posted video of himself hitting a driver at full speed, his left ankle adorned with blue athletic tape. And on Friday he is expected to make it official: He will be back in action amid the dunes at Pete Dye’s Wisconsin masterwork, where he and Spieth could find themselves tussling for No. 1.
Hard as it is to believe, today marks just more than a month since McIlroy hurt himself. It seems like much longer, which perhaps owes to the compelling Spieth narrative that played out in McIlroy’s absence.
Having won the Masters and U.S. Open (plus two regular PGA Tour events at Innisbrook and TPC Deere Run), Spieth came into last month’s British Open at St. Andrews hoping to become the first since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win the season’s first three majors. Spieth also was hoping to keep alive his dream of an unprecedented calendar-year grand slam. He almost did it too, faltering only with a bogey at the tough 17th hole and a par at 18.
Zach Johnson won with a clinic in clutch golf, including birdies on the first two holes of the four-hole aggregate playoff to distance himself from Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman and cruise to victory.
All of that was enough to make us forget, at least for a little while, about McIlroy, even though he, too, has won two regular Tour events (although one of them, the Cadillac Match Play, was a WGC event). When last we saw him he was making an inspired run at the U.S. Open, but he ran out of magic on the back nine, his final-round 66 and T9 finish a letdown. That left the stage to Spieth, who won thanks partly to Dustin Johnson's costly three-putt.
The drama at the Old Course at St. Andrews, four weeks later, was such that it was easy to forget then that McIlroy was still the game’s nominal No. 1. It was easy to forget that just three months earlier McIlroy himself had been going for his third consecutive major championship victory at the Masters, where he shot weekend rounds of 68-66 to finish fourth. It was easy to forget that in winning the Wells Fargo Championship in May, McIlroy fired a third-round 61 at Quail Hollow, the 2017 PGA Championship venue.
Out of sight, out of mind. But the four-time major winner is out of sight no longer. McIlroy’s seasons typically start slowly and build up to big finishes as the summer wears on and bleeds into the fall. (He already has two PGA Championship victories on his resume, including 2014 at Valhalla and 2012 at Kiawah.) But it remains to be seen how he will be affected by this latest setback. So he can hit a drive a full speed. That’s good. But is his left ankle as strong as it needs to be for the hilly walk at Whistling Straits?
At the very least McIlroy should give the surging Spieth something to think about while presenting fans with the tantalizing possibility of one of the greatest but rarest gifts in golf: a true rivalry at the top.
That’s an excellent start.