There are any number of good reasons Rory McIlroy should do everything in his power to make it to the first tee at St. Andrews on July 16 for the start of the British Open.
Start with the venue: St. Andrews, the home of golf, the place the Royal and Ancient Golf Club brings its championship every five years. It’s also worth remembering that the last time the Open was played at St. Andrews in 2010, McIlroy opened with a 63 before getting caught in a Friday gale that led to an 80. Even so, he came back on the weekend to finish tied for third in the Louis Oosthuizen runaway. There’s no doubt he can play the golf course.
There’s also the fact that he’s the defending champion, having won last year at Royal Liverpool. And then there’s the Jordan Spieth factor. The kid from Texas has won the year’s first two majors, overshadowing McIlroy at a time when it looked as if McIlroy was on the verge of dominating his sport. The last thing McIlroy wants to do is sit somewhere with his feet up watching Spieth try to win a third straight major and move within a step of achieving the unprecedented: a calendar Grand Slam.
What’s more, if you believe the experts, it is at least possible to think McIlroy can be somewhere close to pain-free by the first round. On Monday morning, Robert Arciero, the president of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, wrote in an e-mail: “It is amazing how quickly someone can recover from this injury. It is essentially a Grade III injury to the outside ligaments of the ankle. However, since it his left ankle and the one he follows through on, it could be quite difficult. If he is on crutches now and in a boot, odds are he will not be able to play. If he can bear weight on it now, he will have two weeks to heal, and he could be fine.”
The photos McIlroy posted on Instagram on Monday morning showed him in a boot and on crutches. Not a good sign. But even if Arciero’s best-case scenario proves to be true, McIroy probably should sit this one out.
If he plays, he will do so with close to zero preparation. He’s not going to play in this week’s Scottish Open as planned, and he likely will spend a lot more time icing his ankle next week than walking St. Andrews to prepare for the championship. Another orthopedic surgeon, Dean Taylor — like Arciero an avid golfer — made the point that there would be zero chance for McIlroy to play if this was last month’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, a golf course that was brutally difficult to walk for the completely healthy. St. Andrews, at least, is flat and not at all spread out.
Even so, let’s play out the best-case scenario for McIlroy. He would step gingerly to the first tee having not played a round of competitive golf since June 21, the last day of the U.S. Open. He probably will have had virtually no practice. It isn’t all that different than Tiger Woods, after injuring his back on Sunday in Akron last August, playing a nine-hole practice round the day before the PGA Championship and then attempting to play at Valhalla. He missed the cut with lots of room to spare.
Of course there is one major difference between Woods then and McIlroy now: Woods’s golf game was a shambles even before he hurt himself; McIlroy has three worldwide victories this year and finished fourth at the Masters and tied for ninth at the U.S. Open despite putting horribly all week. The possibility that he might (sort of) match what Woods did at the 2008 U.S. Open, when he played five days on a knee and leg that would need surgery soon thereafter and still won, isn’t completely out of the question.
Coincidence or not, Woods hasn’t won a major since then. There are about 500 other possible reasons for his slide, but maybe — just maybe — playing hurt was a factor.
“Short-term gratification against long-term risk,” Taylor said. “That’s the question.”
The risk may not be that great, but even if it is 10 percent, 5 percent or 1 percent, McIlroy should probably pass and rest himself for the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he tied for third five years ago. That said, Whistling Straits is a much more difficult course to walk than St. Andrews.
The last thing anyone wants to see is a hobbled McIlroy somehow change his swing to try to protect the ankle and end up like Dizzy Dean, who changed his pitching motion after breaking his toe in the 1937 All-Star Game and was never the same. Anyone who follows golf knows what a swing change — voluntary or not — can do to a great player.
Ian-Baker Finch thought he needed to change his swing after winning the British Open in 1991 to hit the ball farther so he could win majors in the United States. He plummeted from golf’s pinnacle like a man without a parachute. Martin Kaymer was No. 1 in the world after winning the PGA Championship in 2010, when he decided to change his swing early in 2011 to try to play better at Augusta. It ended up costing him two years of his career, and his best finish at the Masters remains tied for 31st.
Of course, the best example of all this is Woods, who in 2002 insisted on changing a swing that had won seven majors out of 11 and has continued to tinker and change teachers again and again in recent years. The last thing anyone in golf wants is to hear McIlroy talking two years from now about non-firing glutes, patterns and “the process” while celebrating a 31st-place tie at a second-tier tournament.
Again, none of this is likely. Phil Mickelson came back after breaking his leg while skiing in 1994 and won 38 more times, including five majors. But there’s no point in taking any risk when you are 26 and should have years and years of greatness ahead of you.
McIlroy is one of the brightest athletes on the planet. He knows that long-term safety is far more important than short-term gratification. But he is also hyper-competitive the way all the true greats have to be. Here’s hoping someone in his camp — his dad? — talks him into thinking about the next two decades rather than the next two weeks.