EVEN now, nearly four months on, it is proving difficult for Rory McIlroy not to rue the injury sustained playing football that ruled him out of the Scottish Open’s first visit to Gullane, as well as a chance to defend his Open Championship title at St Andrews.
While defensive of himself at the time of the unfortunate mishap –he was insistent that he is entitled to do “normal things” and, in fairness, kicking a ball around with some mates is certainly that – the 26-year-old is heading into the European Tour’s “Final Series” still trying to recapture his pre-injury form.
McIlroy’s golf since returning to action in the season’s final major, the US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, in mid-August hasn’t exactly been shabby, having notched a top-10 finish in that and also ending up fourth in the BMW Championship, the penultimate event in the FedEx Cup Play-Offs on the PGA Tour, in Illinois.
Compared to where it was in the opening half of the year, when the Dubai Desert Classic, WGC-Cadillac Match Play and the Wells Fargo Championship all fell to the then world No 1, the odd cylinder still hasn’t fired up, however, and McIlroy, therefore, is a man on a mission heading into the £4.6 million Turkish Airlines Open starting at the Montgomerie Maxx Royal in Belek today.
“I’d like to win one of these last three events [this, the HSBC Champions in Shanghai then the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai straight after that] as that would make me feel better about the end of the year,” he confessed. “If I was to go from how well I was playing before the injury to the end of the season without another win, that would be very disappointing.
“I feel like a lot’s happened and a lot of time has gone by since that last win back in May and I’m just trying to finish the season off well. I’ve got three opportunities to try to get a win or two on the board and end this year on a positive, to at least go into next year with a bit of momentum.”
That has the potential to be a classic campaign as McIlroy locks horns with Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, both of whom have leapt above the Northern Irishman in the world rankings after the pair won three of the season’s four majors between them. While some may feel that McIlroy needs to return to winning ways again to remind Spieth and Day about his capabilities, the man himself doesn’t think so.
“I’m not thinking about those guys,” insisted McIlroy, who, surprisingly perhaps to some given that he missed three big events during his lay-off, still leads the Race to Dubai and has his closest challenger, Englishman Danny Willett, for company in the opening two rounds here in a group that also includes world No 7 Shane Lowry, the second highest-ranked player in the field following a decision by American Brooks Koepka not to defend his title.
“I’m just concentrating on myself and trying to get my game back to where I know that it can be, and if I can do that, then all the rest of that stuff will sort of take care of itself,” added McIlroy.
“I guess I always have the belief. The good thing for me is that I can draw on some of the great performances and the memories that I have from winning big tournaments and knowing that if I’ve done that before, there’s no reason why I can’t do that again. There’s no better place to get back into contention again than this week as I’d like to win the Race to Dubai for a third time, that would be a great achievement.”
If McIlroy is to fare better over the next four days than his last visit to Turkey – he lost all three of his matches three years ago and finished last in what was then an eight-man exhibition event before it became part of the lucrative “Final Series” – he admits his putter will need to start hotting up a bit after feeling it, more than still recovering from the ruptured ankle ligament in his left ankle, has been stopping him from recapturing top form.
“Health-wise, I’m pretty much back to where I need to be,” declared McIlroy, who holds a 271,214-point lead over Willett in the Race to Dubai standings, with two absentees this week, Louis Oosthuizen and Justin Rose, third and fourth respectively followed by Lowry.
“I’ve started to train the way I was before the injury and it’s now just about trying to get my game back into shape. It’s sort of been two steps forward and one back since I returned from injury. I’ve hit the ball well enough to contend in tournaments and to win tournaments, but my putting has held me back.”
Insisting that was more of a mental than a technical problem in his most recent outing – the Frys.com Open in California a fortnight ago – he added: “I felt like every time I missed the putt, there was a question that followed it; Did I pull it, did I misread it? And so I’ve worked quite a bit on routine, trying to free myself up and simplify it a little bit instead. I felt like sometimes I was making it a little bit more complicated than it has to be.
“I feel I’m a good putter. I feel like I hole out well. I definitely hole out much better than I used to do. And when I get my eye in, I’m really good. But I don’t get my eye in as much as I’d like to. I’ll always be somewhat of a streaky putter.”
The winner this weekend will follow Frenchman Victor Dubuisson, who used his triumph in 2013 as a springboard to automatic qualification for the Ryder Cup, and 2014 winner Koepka – his absence is officially due to “exhaustion” – before the event moves to a new home in 12 months’ time.
With Turkish Airlines still on board after signing a new three-year deal with the European Tour, it will be staged just over three miles from here at Regnum Carya Golf Club, where its championship course was designed by five-times Open champion Peter Thomson and the overall opulence is on par with the Maxx Royal resort, where the G20 summit is being held next month - the reason this event is the Final Series opener on this occasion rather being the penultimate one.
Announcing the new chapter for the event, Turkish Golf Federation president Ahmet Agaoglu revealed that the country had welcomed 130,000 golf tourists last year, generating income of close to Euros 200 million. He also revealed that the Turkish Government is supporting a programme to develop 23 more courses in the Antalya area.