A year ago Rory McIlroy won the FedEx Cup in fine style nobody could reasonably have predicted what happened next but a return to form may be round the corner
It would be an act of exaggeration to suggest the absence of Rory McIlroy casts a dark darknes over the conclusion to the FedEx Cup. The American golfing public are perfectly content with a scenario whereby Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas are the most likely to leave East Lake on Sunday evening $10 m richer.
Nonetheless, just as any event is richer in appeal for McIlroy’s involvement , now is the right time to reflect on a 12 -month spell that, even by the standards of this player’s uncanny inclination to write his own headlines, stands out.
Not lost on the Northern Irishman, amid personal milestones but fitness annoyance, will be the lack of professional success that once came so naturally. In this, the week marking the 10 th anniversary of McIlroy turning professional, he sits eighth in the world rankings, a faintly ludicrous scenario for a golfer of his talent. He has, after all, expended 95 weeks as No1.
McIlroy did not have time to cherish his 2016 FedEx Cup success. His movie star appeal had been emphasised by a hole-out from East Lake’s 16 th fairway, just as McIlroy’s ability to battle- something routinely underplayed- was illustrated by the emergence from a tense play-off with Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell.
The four-times major win was sitting in finish of media duties, his pride at ticking off another career goal abundantly clear, when he was informed of the death of Arnold Palmer. The narrative instantaneously and understandably changed, McIlroy offering a heartfelt and personal tribute to The King. Albeit the team colour was wrong, Palmer would also have approved of the spirit, showmanship and leadership demonstrated by McIlroy, even in defeat to the USA, at the following weekend’s Ryder Cup.
Nobody could reasonably have predicted what happened next. McIlroy’s season was complete in Dubai in mid-November, where he spoke so positively about 2017, which would include wedding and a second tilt at completing the career grand slam. Even Nike’s withdrawal from the equipment marketplace was met with a silver-lining posture. McIlroy could sample the rest of the market, essentially for the first time.
However, McIlroy’s start to the year supplied the storyline that ought to undermine so much of it thereafter. A rib problem, which showed itself in back pain and spasm, arose at the South African Open. It expensed him valuable Masters buildup events. It has been the recurring mitigating factor to dwarf all others and denied McIlroy the workout regime that forms a backdrop to his game.
McIlroy departed Georgia without a Green Jacket but of the preparations for imminent wedding. Of all the influences on McIlroy, there can be no question that of Erica Stoll has been hugely positive by way of calmness and view. That may never have been more necessary than when McIlroy accepted the invitation of a February game with Donald Trump, a move that prompted vehement and global criticism. The sad component of that was, as a child of Belfast’s outskirts, McIlroy is far more aware of political sensitivities than many of those doing the screaming at him.
McIlroy was wounded by a missed cut at the Irish Open, with the Open Championship to prove his last outing alongside longtime caddie JP Fitzgerald. Occasionally McIlroy renders sharp reminders of a ruthless approach to change. And change comes of his own volition, with McIlroy of a mind to attain his own decisions rather than allow committee governance of his game.
Context is useful. Even when playing with what has usually been his C-game, McIlroy has returned five PGA Tour top -10 s and a share of fourth at the Open. To others, a decent return. To McIlroy? Little use.
By the time he reached the opening three events of the FedEx play-offs, McIlroy presented little to demonstrate he really wanted to be there. Intriguing, too, was the sudden addition of the British Masters after Tour Championship participation became a no-go.
If, and it remains a viable prospect, pressure has been applied by Tours on either side of the Atlantic for McIlroy to play then it would be hugely disappointing. McIlroy has been, and will remain, a huge asset to golf. He is also admirably prone to doing what he regards as the right thing for a greater good- but now he simply has to get fully fit or his appearances anywhere come with a negative subtext.