A year ago Rory McIlroy signed off a second PGA Championship in the virtual darkness of Valhalla – a second straight Major victory following his Hoylake (and Bridgestone) heroics – and we all licked our lips at the prospect of various Slams.
The Masters looked a shoo-in so that would quickly tick off a career Grand Slam before the age of 26, and the mere formality of adding a second US Open would then complete the Rory Slam, with four successive Major victories.
The problem with the PGA Championship is that when it brings the curtain down on the Major year it is only mid August and a lot can happen by the time Augusta rolls around eight months later.
In the interim McIlroy has been on a third straight winning Ryder Cup team, topped both Money Lists, won this year in Dubai, won a second WGC event and won at Quail Hollow again, this time by seven shots after shooting a course-record 61 in the third round.
And he’s missed the cut when defending at Wentworth by four shots, amid an awful lot of hoopla at the start of the week, and shot 80 when hosting the Irish Open at County Down.
The Majors they have been equally as up and down. At Augusta he looked set to miss the cut after going out in 40 on Friday, he then played the last 45 holes in 15 under to tie for fourth and we all came away even more convinced that this was the one where he would dominate for years, despite being the missing Major link thus far.
At Chambers Bay he offered us little for three days, and began the final round eight back, before conjuring up six birdies in 13 holes on Sunday. He then sidled away again, eventually finishing ninth.
And then it happened, a picture of McIlroy appeared on Instagram on July 6, balanced on crutches with a huge cast on his left foot. An injury which, at the time, McIlroy thought was far worse.
“I thought I broke it. As soon as I went over on it I heard like a snap. Obviously that was the ligament that snapped. I looked down and 30 seconds later it got the size of a tennis ball, basically because all the fluid came out of the joint capsule, so it just filled up,” he explained in his press conference.
“When I got the scan that night it showed that obviously I totally ruptured one ligament and I had a grade two in the other. And if that had been a total rupture in that then that would have required surgery. So luckily that wasn’t the case. It could have been worse. I was lucky that I didn’t do more damage.”
The ligament that was ruptured isn’t there any more, what were three ligaments are now two.
“I thought I broke it. As soon as I went over on it I heard like a snap" – Rory McIlroy
Already in his place as the player of the year is Jordan Spieth. He missed the cut at Valhalla 12 months ago yet has hardly missed a beat since. The Slams we’ve been talking about since McIlroy went over playing football are Grand Slams proper, the American missing out by a shot from playing off for a third straight big one at St Andrews.
Now he is the clear favourite and, should he do what only Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods have done in the modern era in winning three of the four, the American Slam would be his.
Spieth, Open champion Zach Johnson and McIlroy will play the first two rounds together. Spieth and McIlroy have previously played together eight times in tournaments with the gap 22 shots in McIlroy’s favour, a form guide that can be quickly dismissed for this week.
What will encourage McIlroy is his third place here in 2010, the first time he actually contended in a Major, only missing out on the play-off with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson by a shot. He made more birdies than anyone, 20 over the course of the week, and he will enjoy the fact that the course is soft and green and should favour the big boys.
His record also in the PGA is phenomenal – T3-T3-T64-W-T8-W – something he puts down to his brilliant driving of the ball and he remains the second favourite despite not having played a competitive round since June 21.
McIlroy’s expectations, not surprisingly, remain as lofty as ever.
“I have played quite a number of rounds of golf. I’ve been practising for over three weeks getting my game ready, getting my game sharp. I feel like I’m playing well. Hitting it well on the range. I’ve taken that onto the course in practice rounds and from there it’s being able to take it from there into tournament play with a card in your hand.
“But I expect to play well. I don’t see any reason why I can’t bring the sort of form that I’ve shown in practice rounds and on the range to the tee on Thursday afternoon.”
The fact that he came through four rounds in a row in Portugal last week offers something more concrete that he is match fit. The injury, according to McIlroy, was a six to eight week injury but with round-the-clock help from his trainer, Steve McGregor, he was back playing in five.
Apparently the World No 1 was keen to play in the Bridgestone but McGregor put his foot down, so to speak.
“Steve wanted to do it behind closed doors, and do it without anyone really knowing what was going on, so it was sort of like a fitness test and I passed that one.”
Had he fluffed the test he wouldn’t be in the States to defend his title.
“It wasn’t like I was trying to get back for this. It just so happened that I feel good enough to go. To play golf, it’s 100 per cent. To go back on a soccer pitch, it wouldn’t be quite ready.”