Sandwiched between the season’s last major and the start of the FedEx playoffs, the Wyndham Championship was a drama in search of a plot. Only one world ranked player, Henrik Stenson, #9, was on the field roster. The bubble boys looking to earn status for the coming year, as well as a slot at Northern Trust in New York this week, were not exactly household names. On a triple header golf weekend with the LPGA’s Solheim Cup and the USGA’s century old US Amateur, the Tour had to feel satisfied as the final round played out.
Stenson, looking for his first win since his Open Championship a year earlier, delivered, becoming only the third 54-hole leader to win in the last eighteen events. Yet another member of the Class of 2011, Ollie Schneiderjans, made the Swede earn it, finishing second. And at the back of the standings, four players swapped positions for the coming week and the coming year. Martin Flores, Rory Sabbatini, Harold Varner III, and J.J. Henry advanced. Zac Blair, David Hearn, Seamus Power, and Daniel Summerhays retreated.
Perhaps the biggest Tour news for the week took place a thousand miles from Sedgewick Country Club. On Friday, Ireland’s Rory McIlroy announced he would tee it up in the first round of FedEx. On the surface, a player who won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup a year ago and cashed checks for more than $11 million announcing he was entering with the hopes of repeating would not be a story. But McIlroy’s challenges and distractions on the season caused him to pause before he committed.
The argument could be made the 28-year-old Irishman is the progenitor for the youth brigade we see today on Tour. Just as Tiger Woods marked the path for McIlroy to rise to the top of golf’s ranks at a tender age, so too has McIlroy served as the beacon for the under 25’s headlining the 2017 season.
When he won at Quail Hollow in 2010 at the age of 21, he teased of his future. When he dominated for 54 holes at Augusta the following year, before crashing on Sunday, he both validated and questioned that future. But when he destroyed the record book and the field to win the 2011 US Open at Congressional two months later, golf had its next Tiger.
With eleven more Tour titles, including three additional majors in the next three years, the count to catching Tiger’s 14 majors was underway. But golf has a way of erecting detours to even the most gifted players.
Now measuring success by his performance in the majors, 2016 was a McIlroy disappointment. Shut out of the majors the prior year, which included an injured absence from the Open, McIlroy never threatened in ’16. The 28-year-old finished T10 at Augusta, missed the cut at Oakmont, T5 at the Open Championship, as part of the pack left behind by Stenson and Phil Mickelson, and had another major weekend off at Baltusrol and the PGA.
Looking to get back on track in 2017, and pointing toward completing the career Grand Slam at Augusta, McIlroy again fell victim to health issues. A rib injury sidelined him until the first week in March, and he came into Augusta underplayed by his own estimation. “It wasn’t the start that I wanted for the year,” McIlroy said. “I wanted to play quite a heavy schedule coming in, coming into the Masters. But the one event in South Africa and then seven weeks off.” A mediocre start for rounds one and two at the Masters relegated him to another top ten with no chance to catch Sergio Garcia
At Erin Hills and the US Open, it was his third MC in his last five majors, and for the first time he admitted his health was still a concern. “No limitations on my swing whatsoever. Preparation-wise, I may be — instead of hitting five bags of balls, I’ll hit two, just something like that. It’s not as if I can’t hit balls, it’s just a matter of managing how many repetitions I put through it. I mean not really many limitations,” he said heading into the week.
Lost in the five hole Jordan Spieth spectacle on Sunday at Royal Birkdale, McIlroy had again put together a respectable major finish with three rounds in the sixties and a T4 to Spieth at the Open. And with two wins and a playoff loss at Quail Hollow, the PGA shaped up as the perfect venue to get the major train back on track.
It was less than perfect. Three straight over par rounds tagged to a final day 68 put him T22 and now twelve majors separated from his last win. Owning up to that reality, McIlroy admitted the rosy scenario he had been painting with the rib injury was less than forthright. “Right now I can feel my left rhomboid going into spasm. It’s sort of the way it has been the last few weeks. I have upped my practice coming into these two events because I wanted to feel like I was in a good place in my game. But, yeah, right now it’s a tough one because I go out there and play and shoot decent scores, but when I come off the course, I feel my left rhomboid going into spasm.
“Look, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said heading out the door in North Carolina. “You might not see me until next year. You might see me in a couple of weeks’ time. It really depends. I feel like a sense of not duty, but I’ve missed a lot of time already. If I’m capable of playing, I feel like why shouldn’t you. But then at the same time, if you are not capable of playing at your best, why should you play. So, again, it’s a Catch 22. We’ll see what happens. Assess my options in the next few days and see where we go from there.”
We now know he’s going to New York. We have to wonder in what state physically.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.