DARREN Clarke believes Rory McIlroy can contend for a fifth major title this week, despite his long injury lay-off.
McIlroy’s last competitive round was a closing 66 in the US Open on 21 June, the world No 1 then rupturing a ligament in his left ankle during a game of football with friends on 4 July.
It felt the right time to come. I’m ready to play and I expect to do wellRory McIlroy
The 26-year-old was forced to miss the defence of his Open title at St Andrews and last week’s Bridgestone Invitational, but has confounded expectations by declaring himself ready to defend his US PGA crown at Whistling Straits.
“No, I’m not surprised to see him back here,” said Clarke, who had joked while collecting an award on McIlroy’s behalf before the Open that his fellow Northern Irishman would not return until early next year.
“He obviously has got a wonderful team around him and he would have done everything he could to get back as quickly as possible. I’m sure with an ankle injury he would have been advised not to come back until fully fit. If you injure an ankle and keep playing on it, it gets worse and worse and worse.
“He may not be competitively sharp, for obvious reasons, but he is world No 1. He has done many amazing things in his young career, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him contending this week.”
Former world No 1 Tiger Woods was also not surprised to see McIlroy back in action, but suggested an operation may still be required.
“He has good physios, he’s worked hard,” Woods said. “It’s a matter of how long is he going to have to go with it like this or is he going to have to get it surgically repaired.
“And then obviously this is going to be tough. This is going to be a tough golf course. Even the walks, from tee box to fairway, they’re not straight. They’ve got a little angulation. And it’s just a matter of how can he hold that up.
“I blew out my knee and played for a good nine months before I had it fixed, so it can be done.
“Is he probably going to be in pain? Probably, yeah. Swelling is going to probably occur, but that’s why the physios are there, and I’m sure they’ll get him organised.”
McIlroy has been at Whistling Straits for several days and told reporters on Monday he had wanted to defend his Bridgestone Invitational title last week.
“I did think about coming back last week but Steve [McGregor, his fitness coach] held me back,” McIlroy said. “He thought it important for me to basically play a tournament behind closed doors and after I completed that successfully, it felt the right time to come. I’m ready to play and I expect to do well.”
McIlroy has been paired with Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson for the first two rounds, with Masters and US Open champion Spieth again having the chance to replace McIlroy as world No 1.
Ryder Cup captain Clarke, meanwhile, has backed the European Tour’s decision to withdraw the Bridgestone Invitational from its 2016 schedule, even though that creates a dilemma for potential European team members.
A re-working of the PGA Tour’s 2016 calendar to accommodate golf’s return to the Olympics has brought the prestigious World Golf Championship event forward to the end of June. That brings it into direct conflict with one of the oldest tournaments in European golf, the Alstom Open de France at Le Golf National, venue for the 2018 Ryder Cup.
The European Tour has responded by withdrawing its sanction of the WGC event at Firestone, meaning money won in Akron will not count for Ryder Cup points or towards the Race to Dubai. Ireland’s Shane Lowry will undoubtedly want to defend the title he won in such style on Sunday, but he and others could be in need of Ryder Cup points at that time, with the qualifying race set to end on 28 August in Denmark.
“It’s a tough decision for Shane. He won his first World Golf Championship at Firestone and he may have a decision to make come next summer,” Clarke said.
“But in terms of what the European Tour has done, I think they’ve done the right thing by standing beside one of their mainstays. The French Open is steeped in history, around a wonderful venue that we have the 2018 Ryder Cup around. They’ve shown loyalty to the French Open and rightly so.”
Clarke said he would advise prospective team members to play in France rather than Akron, but added: “I can’t tell the guys what to do. I can tell them what I’d like them to do.
“But under no means would I try to tell one of my peers what he should do and what he shouldn’t do. So that choice will be up to them. All I know is that I’m fully in support of what the European Tour has done to support the French Open. Do I think it will demean Firestone? No. Do I think it will make France better? Possibly. I hope so.”
It is understood the PGA refused to consider a different date for the Bridgestone Invitational, leaving the European Tour with little choice.