The 14-times major winner, whose career has been blighted in part by injury, fears the slopes of Whistling Straits may undermine McIlroy’s ability to successfully defend the Wanamaker Trophy.
The 26-year-old Northern Irishman has missed more than a month of golf, including the Open, after rupturing an ankle ligament during a football match with friends in Northern Ireland. The world No1 has looked in ideal physical condition in Wisconsin, where he has practised every day since Saturday and declared the ankle scenario a “non-issue”. Woods, though, is not so sure.
“Am I surprised he’s made the recovery? No, not really,” Woods said on Tuesday. “He has good physios, he has worked hard. 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 if you miss the golf ball a little bit. Even the walks, from tee box to fairway, they’re not straight. They’ve got a little undulation and it’s just a matter of how can he hold that up.
“As far as his talent and to be able to play golf, that’s not going to be a problem. He understands how to play. It’s a matter of physically can he do it.”
He added: “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.”
Woods’s view is at odds with McIlroy’s compatriot Darren Clarke. Europe’s Ryder Cup captain said it would be no shock at all to see McIlroy challenging for the lead on Sunday.
“I’m sure with an ankle injury he would have been advised not to come back until fully fit,” Clarke said. “If you injure an ankle and keep playing on it, it gets worse and worse and worse.
“He’s back, he may not be competitively sharp for obvious reasons but he’s the world No1. He’s done many amazing things in his young career, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him contending this week.”
Clarke also shrugged off the prospect of American players taking all four majors this year. Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson have the first three between them. “If you ask me the same question next year I may be a little more concerned,” he said.
It is a sign of Woods’s lowly status – he is ranked 278th in the world – that his pre-tournament media conference was dominated by talk of McIlroy, the 23-year-old Hideki Matsuyama, the veteran Steve Stricker and a new restaurant venture in Florida. The notion of winning a 15th major has never been so detached from the Woods story.
“I don’t know my exact ranking right now,” he said. “I know I’m in the 200s somewhere. As far as paying attention to it, no, I’m just trying to get better. I’m just trying to get up there where I can win tournaments, get my game organised, so I can be consistent on a tournament basis where I’m going to give myself a chance to win each and every event I play in.
“That’s what I have done over most of my career – and I’d like to get to that point again where I could do that.”
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