Commentary: McIlroy shows off Irish grit
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. - You think what Rory McIlroy did at Congressional earlier this summer was impressive? Well, you should have seen him during Thursday’s opening round of the 93rd PGA Championship. He beat 121 players in the field with one hand tied behind his back.
2011 PGA Championship (Rd. 1)
Check out photos from the first round of the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club
OK, so a damaged tendon in his right forearm, just above the wrist, wasn’t exactly tied behind his back. It was bandaged up and wrapped tightly, making the 22-year-old appear as if he were some reckless teen gone sideways on a skateboard. An ill-advised, risky recovery shot and an ensuing hard impact with a root on his third hole of the day very nearly ended his week in Atlanta – and who knows how far beyond?
Only the technician taking McIlroy’s MRI in Atlanta Thursday evening truly knows just how good the young Irishman’s opening round of even-par 70 was (Note: The MRI showed a strained tendon in his forearm; whether he’ll play Friday will be a game-time decision). Thursday, he finished most of his shots with only his left hand on the club, and on a day that turned tough for many, still led the field in pained grimaces. Though others urged him to be safe and stop playing – a plea caddie JP Fitzgerald made to him as McIlroy’s Titleist lay in a cavernous dirt hole on the left side of 12 – but the youngster forged on.
Pro football always will have Jack Youngblood playing on a broken leg; golf now has another tough-guy story to tell, too.
“They said it’s your decision,” McIlroy said. “If you want to play on and you feel comfortable doing that … but if not, there’s no point in risking it.”
What possibly was his rationalization for taking the risk? "It’s the last major of the year,” he said. “I’ve got, what, six or seven months to the Masters?”
And oh, only about another two decades-plus on a playing career, we all hope. For those around him, especially his dad, it was a scary, scary scene to watch unfold. His father, Gerry McIlroy, joked that he didn’t know if his son was being brave by playing on … or just dumb. But a physiotherapist staying in contact with his son on every hole had told Rory he could not damage the tendon further, and so on he marched.
“He’s smart enough,” Gerry McIlroy said about his only child. “He’s 22, and he knows he doesn’t want to do any more damage than has already been done.”
When it appeared as if McIlroy might walk off the golf course early on, the pain simply too much to bear, he instead went birdie-birdie on 5-6. He got his wrist and forearm taped on the eighth hole, and then got re-wrapped on the 10th, sitting on a green bench behind the tee like a middleweight boxer getting taped before rounds.
He’d just poured in a 12-footer to save par on the ninth, and a hole later, his hand feeling a bit more comfortable beneath the new gauze wrap, he made one of the best pars in the history of golf.
He came off a 3-wood and the shot fluttered short and right, into the trees. From there he punched a low, hooded sand wedge down the 18th fairway of the Highlands’ adjoining course, Riverside (“Don’t worry, Rory. I’ve been there plenty of times,” one member shouted in an encouraging tone), then blasted a high 8-iron from 180 yards across the treetops to his proper green. It became a par to tell the grandchildren about when he rolled in the 20-foot curler. Ho-hum.
But it wasn’t the numbers on his card that impressed; it was the fortitude he showed. The par-5 12th marked a crossroads to his day. He pulled a driver left, where many of his one-armed misses finished up, and had to be thinking somebody upstairs might be trying to tell him something once he got to his ball. In a waste-like area of dirt and straw, his ball sat on the backside of a large hole the size of a big salad dish. That’s when his attending physiotherapist, South Africa’s Cornel Driessen, had seen enough. He approached McIlroy as McIlroy stared into the abyss and advised him not to try the shot. Just call it a day. Surely there will be other PGAs to conquer.
Fitzgerald quickly jumped onboard, too, telling his player to view a bigger picture.
“No point injuring yourself for the last six holes,” he told McIlroy.
McIlroy looked back at him like a youngster begging for a toy. “Just let me finish this round,” he said, “and then we’ll see how it goes.”
He hit down hard on the ball with a sand wedge, the ball skimming back into play. Driessen shook his head from side to side in disbelief. From there, McIlroy hit an approach behind the hole, and rolled in the putt to get into red numbers. Amazing.
Also amazing is that the blow he took against the root on the third hole cost him his 7-iron for the day. The clubhead broke at the hosel, and he took the club out of play (Titleist was shipping him a replacement for Friday). He’d get to add a 2-iron into the bag that he’d never use. As luck would have it, he would need the 7-iron no fewer than five times in his final five holes. But this was a good day to improvise.
Injuries to the hands and wrists are as frightening to golfers are they are to pianists and doctors. Shortly after McIlroy was off to his MRI, Trevor Immelman finished up his round of 1 under. The 2008 Masters champion lost roughly two years of his career to a left wrist injury, and just now is starting to build any kind of momentum.
“Wrists are dangerous. When you start looking at X-rays and MRIs, there’s all the bones and tendons, and there’s so much going on in there,” Immelman said. “My surgeon kept telling me it takes longer to heal with a wrist because no blood gets in there, and there’s no blood in the tendons – and blood is what heals everything.”
McIlroy, who incurred some slight swelling on the inside of the wrist, looked fine into contact, but from there you could see him flinch, the pain shooting up his right wrist and forearm. He could not block from his mind the shooting pain that awaited him after impact. Any damage from the jolt of hitting the root seemed to be mostly outside of the wrist, though, which is a good thing. McIlroy said that faced with a similar amount of pain on Friday, well, he’d play.
“I’m still in the hunt,” he would say. “So we’ll see what the results are tonight, and if I can strap it up and play tomorrow, I will.”
Gerry McIlroy raised one tough kid.