Not that Rory McIlroy is in any way comparable to Donald Trump – he has better hair for the start – but like the ludicrously tanned loudmouth now dominating the American political scene the world’s number one golfer has an innate ability to make the world revolve around his gravitational pull.
There we all were discussing a season in which Jordan Spieth made a creditable run at a historic Grand Slam; in which Zach Johnson nipped in over the final nine holes to win the Open at St Andrews; in which Tiger Woods dropped to number 276 in the world rankings (just ahead of Thanyakorn Khrongpha!); in which Shane Lowry added his name to the list of truly great contemporary Irish golfers – and along came the Hollywood mop-top to grab everyone by the metaphorical lapels and yell (metaphorically, of course) into their ear: “Look at me!”
A month ago, while the world of golf was salivating at the prospect of McIlroy and Spieth going head to head at the Open, the Irishman popped up on our Instagram feed one morning to casually announce he had ruptured an ankle ligament and would be out of action for a while. A million words were spilled in writing the obituary for McIlroy’s 2015 season, and his world number one ranking with it.
Oh what fools he has made of all of us, beginning with a sudden social media stirring last week that hinted he might play in this week’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. After the hints, and a denial from his PR flunkies, the world number one finally showed up at Whistling Straits on Saturday to play a practice round. His appearance received blanket coverage on Golf Channel. And with that Rory was back where he belongs – at the front and centre of the golfing universe, with every eye trained on him and every conversation devoted to his very being.
But what of the very thing that elevated him to such celebrity heights – his ability to win golf tournaments and more especially Major championships? It will become clear this week when McIlroy tees it up alongside Spieth and Zach Johnson on Thursday to start his defence of a PGA Championship he won last year at Valhalla.
Conventional medical and sporting opinion suggests he has no chance of adding to his four Majors at Whistling Straits. He is not “match fit”, as they say, and more decisively he will not swing at 100% in order to protect his injured ankle.
Such opinions are perfectly valid, even if they come from the same sources who previously suggested we had seen the last of McIlroy for 2105. Those who have been around McIlroy over the years will testify that nothing gives him more pleasure than make fools of his critics.
Still, the Irishman does not have the monopoly on motivation. There are plenty of others who will arrive in Wisconsin with something to prove, beginning with the man who has threatened to usurp him at the top of the world rankings. Jordan Spieth may not possess McIlroy’s raw golfing talent or fluid swing but he is no less driven and competitive. He will see the Irishman’s rapid return to sport as the personal challenge it is clearly meant to be and will likely respond in kind.
That’s the theory at least, as well as the deeply-held hope of everyone who loves Major championship golf. What could be better than the top two players going at each other, playing alongside each for four days?
Unfortunately, the majors rarely unfold as people expect or wish. The post Tiger Woods era is a more democratic era, with the spread of potential winners much wider than it has been in recent memory. This might be especially true when the venue is Whistling Straits, a visually striking golf course but one that makes it hard to identify the favourites.
The course has a lot of what is known in the trade as “forced carries” so theoretically it should favour those who hit the ball long and high. Yet the same was said of the Old Course and look who won there. When the event was held here in 2004 and 2010 it was won by Vijay Singh and Martin Kaymer respectively, neither of whom could be described as out-and-out bombers. The leaderboard in 2010 was dominated by long hitters – Bubba Watson, McIlroy, Dustin Johnson – but there was also a smattering of more subtle players, the likes of Jason Dufner and Steve Elkington.
Amid such uncertainty, it is perhaps best to look beyond the pragmatism of golf swings and ball flights and ask ourselves who might actually want to win this week more than anyone else. Who might have the greatest motivation of all?
And if that is the question there can surely only be one answer, one player who will arrive at Whistling Straits with more to prove than anyone else. Dustin Johnson should have won the US Open at Chambers Bay this year and might have won the Open after dominating the first two days at the Old Course. He did neither, falling to a rickety putting stroke at the former and an inexplicable collapse in Scotland. The siren call of “too good not to win a major” has never seen more appropriate than when applied to the languid Yank.
It is time for DJ to answer the call. More than that, it is time for him to right a wrong committed at this venue five years ago, when he was denied a place in the play-off eventually won by Kaymer a rules infringement that cost him a two-shot penalty.
Many within the game feel that the American was unjustly treated that day, even if Johnson himself accepted his fate with sanguine good grace.
For such good manners alone, he should have been granted a reprieve, if not back in 2010 then surely in 2015. Suffice to say, if there is such a thing as a golfing God in this world then he will give DJ the outcome his talent deserves.
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