McIlroy didn't contend at the PGA, but he still became a breakout star this year

McIlroy didn’t contend at the PGA, but he still became a breakout star this year

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — With his injured wrist bandaged and his score soaring, Rory McIlroy wandered between dining tables on a patio outside a hospitality tent deep behind the ninth green late Sunday morning. He was searching for — of all things — his golf ball.

He had just bladed his approach shot from a fairway bunker on the par 4, and his ball airmailed the green, a TV tower, a white picket fence and a few tall pines. The only thing that kept his Titleist from sailing all the way to Duluth was the roof of the Wanamaker Club — a swanky hospitality spot where fans enjoyed air conditioning, fresh panini and prime viewing seats. The ball finally crash-landed near a dining table on the patio, and all McIlroy needed was a fork and some French toast and he could’ve had brunch. The fans cheered him as he waded through the throngs, and for a brief moment he even considered playing the shot off the patio before finally taking a free drop outside the hospitality area. The club-goers loved it.

“They had to move our table — he was really nice about it,” said 57-year-old Ellen Thompson of Myrtle Beach, S.C. “Someone asked him, ‘How’s your week going?’ And he just laughed.”

McIlroy went on to make a bogey, but he flashed a quick grin while walking off the green. He was playing poorly, but he appeared to be having fun.

(VIDEO: McIlroy’s shot lands in a hospitality area behind the ninth hole)

It wasn’t the way the 22-year-old wanted to finish his breakout major-championship season. On Sunday, he was still bothered by that strained tendon in his right wrist, which he injured on the third hole Thursday when he tried to play his ball off an exposed tree root. His 7-iron struck the root, and he recoiled as the pain shot up his wrist and arm. (Photos: McIlroy’s injury.)

McIlroy gutted out the rest of that round and made the cut, but he never contended for the title. His plight also sparked a spirited debate as to whether the young Irishman should’ve withdrawn from the event to avoid risking further damage. He shot 74 on Sunday, his second-straight four-over-par round, and finished 11 over, well off the pace. Afterward, McIlroy said the injury was not as painful on Sunday, but that it still affected his play.

“To be honest, I’m glad to be done — it was a struggle,” McIlroy said. “I basically played 70 holes of this tournament not 100 percent, so it was always going to be tough.”

Still, McIlroy’s season at the 2011 majors was a resounding success, highlighted by his runaway victory at the U.S. Open, which he won by eight shots. He also took the lead into the final round at the Masters before stumbling, and contended briefly at the British Open before fading on the weekend to tie for 25th. He also became a star in the United States, and this week his galleries equaled the size and volume of those trailing Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

“I feel comfortable in these events, and the win this year in the U.S. Open will give me a lot of confidence going into them next year again,” he said.

McIlroy said the PGA will be his final event in the United States this year. Although he has announced that he will re-join the PGA Tour full-time next year, McIlroy’s short-term plan is to get some rest and allow his wrist to heal in time to play a few European Tour events this fall, including the Dunhill Links Championship, the Dubai World Championship, and the WGC-HSBC Champions event in Shanghai.

He’s also planning a trip this week to — surprise — southern Ohio.

“I’m actually going to go to Cincinnati for a few days. I hear it’s nice there this time of year,” he said with a smile.

Why Cincinnati? That’s the site of the WTA’s Western & Southern Open, where tennis star Caroline Wozniacki — who has been linked to McIlroy in recent weeks — will be competing. McIlroy also said he’s going to start house-hunting in Florida once his golf season concludes.

“There was no point in going down there for a couple of days and rushing around and trying to pick something,” he said. “I’ll see how it is, maybe rent something down there for a while and choose the area that I would like to live and go from there.”

In other words, America’s newest golf star will be back soon. No need to rush him.

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