Regardless of whether or not Rory McIlroy defies general opinion – as, to be fair, he has made something of a habit – to appear at the Open, the story of this year’s tournament at St Andrews has already been altered.
If McIlroy falls victim to a football injury sustained on a five-a-side pitch, the world of golf will have cause to be upset.
This was the major to apparently endorse a new rivalry. Jordan Spieth’s consecutive wins at the Masters and US Open have set the 21-year-old Texan apart as the main challenger to McIlroy at the summit of golf. At the ancient home of the game, in the oldest major of them all, where better for the youthful duo to square off?
Should McIlroy miss St Andrews, there will be no joust with Spieth or, surely in the world No1’s mind, an opportunity to demonstrate his superiority on a venue he has grown to adore. If McIlroy plays, scrutiny will not so much surround his handling of a young pretender as how his fitness holds out at every walk and swing.
For the sport, this is a highly unfortunate scenario. The Royal & Ancient and its sponsors will never admit to an individual holding sway over the Open – they have stood back and watched the fluctuating fortunes of Tiger Woods for long enough, after all – but these key stakeholders can only have been dismayed by McIlroy’s news. Thankfully, the vast majority of tournament tickets are advance sales.
The Scottish Open, which begins in East Lothian on Thursday, was first to deal with the impact of this McIlroy affair. “We are still looking forward to hosting one of the strongest fields in Scottish Open history over one of the great links tests at Gullane,” said its championship director Peter Adams. “The last four Open champions – of which Rory is obviously one – have all played in the Scottish Open the week before winning the Claret Jug and we hope to continue that trend this week.”
At best, McIlroy has only suffered severe disruption of his Open preparations and will still take to the Fife links. At worst, his season has been seriously affected, maybe even cut short, by a ruptured ankle ligament. Just when golf was gripped by the excitement of the McIlroy and Spieth battle, it may have been postponed. And by virtue of an artificial surface, no less.
McIlroy will inevitably be criticised for his willingness to risk professional problems by taking to a football pitch in the first place. He suffered an ankle sprain when doing likewise shortly before Christmas 2013. He quipped that his alternative ball sport dalliances were over at that point.
Would Jack Nicklaus, or Woods, have stopped playing other sports? The answer is of course no. Woods, his former coach Hank Haney revealed in a detailed account of the 14-times major winner’s character, would be more prone to dangerous expeditions with navy seals.
Nicklaus’s downtime was more quietly spent. He, though, lived in an era and environment far detached from the global superstar of 2015 where every move is closely monitored. In an endearing attempt to defy such interest, McIlroy makes it his business to try to lead as normal a life as possible. It is what makes him such enjoyable company.
He attended a Neil Diamond concert in Belfast last week with friends he has retained since childhood. Rather than being criticised for the supposed recklessness of his Saturday pursuits, McIlroy should be credited with continuing to behave like every other 26-year-old would like to.
Except, of course, from the fact he isn’t. The curse of Nike? The sporting industry giant had already suffered from Woods’s indiscretions and injuries before Paul Casey, another of their marquee golfers, smashed his collarbone while snowboarding. McIlroy suffered from a dip in form when switching to Nike equipment in 2013.
“Like fans everywhere, we are saddened to hear about Rory’s injury and stand by him as his doctors continue to assess his condition and treatment day by day,” said a Nike spokesman. “More importantly, we wish him a speedy recovery.”
McIlroy’s propensity to create headlines is bizarre for one so young and calm of character. Golf is a poorer place without him, which is why a broad group will place great hope on his powers of recovery over little more than a week.
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