The injury itself is simple: In the plainest language, Rory McIlroy suffered a really bad sprained ankle, the kind of ailment with which any weekend warrior could relate. The question of how he chooses to recover, and whether McIlroy defends his British Open title 10 days from now, is more complicated.
McIlroy endangered the remainder of his golf season Saturday, when he ruptured the anterior talofibular ligament in his left ankle during a soccer “kickaround” with friends. But the injury doesn’t necessarily doom his chances to compete at St. Andrews when the Open begins Aug. 16. A spokeswoman told CNN that McIlroy has a 10 percent chance to play. Outside experts expressed greater optimism.
“I’d say 50-50,” said Dr. Melvin Deese, an orthopedic sports surgeon who once repaired a similar injury to Davis Love III. “Could he do it? The answer is yeah, he could. Is it wise? Probably not wise. But these guys can block out a lot more than the average golfer. But if his doctor thinks he can swing without [having surgery first], the operation is going to be the same now as it is then.”
Deese has not seen McIlory’s injury and stressed he could only speculate. His chances to play would decrease, for example, if McIlory also suffered cartilage or tendon damage. Deese said the most important factor will be the stability of McIlroy’s ankle and if McIlory’s pain tolerance will enable him to repeat his swing.
“If he can mentally focus on the swing and make some mental accommodations, an athlete at his level may well be able to do that,” Deese said. “He’s a dedicated guy. He could probably do it if that’s what he chose to do it. That doesn’t mean he’s going to perform at his highest level.”
Deese gave McIlroy a decent shot to return for St. Andrews primarily on the well-founded belief that athletes of his caliber are built from different stock. He cited the example of Tigers Woods limping to the 2008 U.S. Open title despite a torn ACL and double stress fracture in his left knee.
“That really is based on his desire to play,” Deese said. “I don’t mean that in any kind of negative sense.”
The injury McIlroy suffered is “the most common orthopedic injury there is,” Deese said. If you’ve rolled your ankle playing basketball or stepped on a base wrong in a slow-pitch softball game, you have a good idea of what happened to McIlory.
That McIlory injured his left ankle, not his right, matters. When a golfer rolls his front foot, it directly mimics the movement that strained the ligament to begin with. If McIlroy played the British Open, he would require a heavy tape job and a brace around his ankle.
For a casual athlete, Deese wouldn’t recommend surgery. For an elite golfer such as McIlory, Deese probably would recommend surgery, especially for the left ankle, to ensure a return to full strength.
In late September 2007, Love III stepped in a hole and tore ligaments in his left ankle. He underwent surgery and didn’t play golf again for eight weeks. Love III played in a tournament the following February, which Deese said is typical; it takes four to six months to return to competition.
To reach full strength, Deese said, it takes a full year. The nerves around the ankle must regenerate, and it takes a year until “your body knows where and what you’re ankle is doing,” Deese said. For Love III, his full recovery culminated when he won the Children’s Miracle Network Classic in November 2008, almost exactly one year after surgery.
Without surgery, full recovery would take six to eight weeks, said Dr. Matthew Buchanan of the Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Center in Virginia. If McIlroy skipped the British Open and eschewed surgery, he would be close full strength by the PGA Championship — another title he currently holds — which starts Aug. 13. Buchanan was less optimistic than Deese, but he still said he would give McIlory a 25 percent shot at playing in the British.
Buchanan and Deese said McIlroy will experience no long-term effects from the injury. “I think he’ll be fine,” Buchanan said. “If you’re going to pick an injury, this is a relatively straightforward one.” But McIlory must first address the urgent question of whether he plays in the British Open, and at the moment there is little straightforward about that.