Rory McIlroy could have taken a longer, safer route to the 18th green at Whistling Straits. Instead he bounded down a steep hill like a mountain goat who’d just spotted a particularly juicy clump of grass.
Ruptured ankle ligaments? Clearly not any more. The July 4 football injury that forced the world No 1 to miss the Scottish Open and his defence of The Open and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last week is well and truly history.
In fact, McIlroy surprised waiting reporters but revealing that he started hitting golf balls again just a fortnight after the kick-about that caused the problem — on July 20, the day Zach Johnson claimed the Claret Jug.
Okay, he hasn’t played a competitive round since he tied for ninth Shane Lowry in the US Open and will have been idle for 53 days when he tees it up in round one.
But having walked and played 72 holes at Quinta do Lago last week, he admitted that his trainer Dr Steve McGregor had to hold him back and stop him teeing it up in Akron.
Rust is now his biggest problem and while it took hime three attempts to hit the 18th green as he played his 45th hole of practice at Whistling Straits yesterday, he’s confident he’ll be ready for his date with Johnson and the pretender to world No 1 throne, Jordan Spieth
Having said he wouldn’t come back until he was 100 percent fit and 100 percent competitive, the question about the latter was apposite.
Will he be 100 percent competitive?
“Yes,” he said with conviction. “I was being held back by Steve. I wanted to play four rounds in a row and I thought Bridgestone might be a good way to do that. But we wanted to do it behind closed doors without anyone really knowing what was going on.
“I passed that fitness test and felt like it was the right time to come. It wasn’t like I was trying to get back for this, I am just feeling good enough to go this week. Steve [wasn’t holding me back out of nervousness] — he was just going through all the fitness protocols and that was basically it.”
McIlroy could lose his world No 1 ranking to Masters and US Open champion Spieth this week as well as his lead in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.
But he says he hasn’t rushed back, insisting: “Obviously it’s important to remain world number one, I’ve made that clear. It’s been a year since I got it back.
“But it’s just about playing well and winning tournaments and that’s my main focus this week.”
Admitting that Lowry is another rival now, he said: “Shane’s victory was fantastic. I played 18 on Sunday morning and came back to the house we are renting at watched it.
“Once he got into the lead, he hit a couple of wonder shots— that shot on 10, which was incredible And he holed some big par putt putts down the stretch
“I texted him last night and said it was a pretty ballsy victory. And yes, he could be in the Olympics too, depending on how everything goes the next 52 weeks.”
McIlroy leads the Race to Dubai by just €247,570 from Danny Willett with Louis Oosthuizen and Lowry close behind.
He said: “I’ve let everyone get closer to me to Race to Dubai — Louis and Danny did well at Open and now Shane is a rival as well. So I need to take care of that as well.”
The 26-year old played 18 holes at Whistling Straits on Saturday and Sunday and nine yesterday.
He plans to play just nine holes today and tomorrow and reckons he’ll be fresher than most this week and for the rest of the PGA Tour season.
He said: “I’ve never won the Fedex Cup so that’s a priority of mine. It’s been eight or nine weeks since I’ve played in the US Open so at least I will be fresher than some of the guys.
Revealing he’s been hitting balls since the final day of The Open on July 20, he said: “I have played quite a lot of golf since then and it feels good. I am finding the middle of the clubface.
“Obviously it’s difficult to keep the short game sharp but basically I’ve been chipping and putting since it happened, with my [protective] boot on. So I have kept that part of the game sharp.”
As for his ankle stability, he was adamant he was 100 percent.
“I can go at the ball as hard as I can with the driver, and it actually feels better if I really go at it, because my left foot spins out of the way when I hit the driver anyway,” he said “If I rolled onto my left side like a lot of guys to, then it would create a few problems. But because my ankle spins out of the way, it takes a lot of pressure off it.
“The hardest thing after seven weeks is just the competitiveness of what it’s like playing a tournament."
He had a seven-week winter break before finishing second on his seasonal debut in Abu Dhabi earlier this year but admits this is a tougher prospect.
“It is okay coming back and playing in Abu Dhabi as your first week back but coming back and playing a major is a bit different," he said. “So that’s why I was playing just one ball, trying to keep score. I am just trying to get as many rounds in as possible.
“I played 72 holes walking in Portugal last week, played pretty good and kept score there as well, so everything feels good. That sharpness and that competitive edge is the thing that you hope is there.”
And with that he was off, bounding up a steep path to go and do some putting.