Rory McIlroy overcomes back pain to survive cut at Sawgrass
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Early this year, Rory McIlroy was forced to bench himself after dealing with back pain at the South Africa Open, where he lost in a playoff. He was then diagnosed with a stress fracture to a rib and missed four tournaments over the next seven weeks.

McIlroy rolled in a 10-footer for birdie on the par-5 9th, his final hole in the second round, managing to overcome the stiffness in his back to post a one-under 71 in difficult conditions — though milder in the morning compared to what the afternoon wave faced (per usual)– at an already challenging TPC Sawgrass. Afterwards, he told the press he planned to get an MRI on Monday when he returns to Belfast, Northern Ireland.

“I’ve been struggling with it a bit,” said Rory, who is even-par at the halfway mark (T43). “I felt it for the first time on Sunday. I’ve just sort of been managing it since.

“It’s OK, it’s manageable. It’s not obviously 100% but it’s good enough to get myself around here for the next couple of days. I’m going for a MRI scan on Monday just to make sure it’s not serious and then I’ll see what we do from there.”

“But there’s so many unknowns because we don’t even know … unless you get an image taken of it and you know exactly what’s going on you don’t know. We are just making sure that the tissue around it is as loose as it possibly can be and at least the warm weather helps keep it not stiffened up.”

Since returning in mid-March in time for the WGC-Mexico Championship, Rory has secured three top-10 finishes in four starts, including T7 at the Masters. Prior to the first major of the year, which has eluded the world no. 2 from completing his quest for the career grand slam, he admitted that his preparation heading into Augusta National was less than ideal after sitting out for nearly two months to kick off the new year.

McIlroy, who is known for his candor and relative transparency, revealed after the first round that he was experiencing pain in the same area that sidelined him earlier this year, but remained optimistic that it was manageable and different than the original injury.

“It’s in the same area as the injury at the start of the year,” McIlroy added. “If that injury was an eight or a nine in terms of pain and soreness and stiffness, this is around a four or five. It might just be a flare-up of what happened previously and I just need to rest for a few days and it might be OK. Hopefully that’s what it shows in the scan.

“Thankfully it feels more muscular than joint or bone at this point. I feel like I can distinguish what the difference is between the two. It’s just about making sure that this left rhomboid doesn’t go into spasm and doesn’t really tighten up around the joint. The warm weather helps, it helps it stay a little looser.

“I had the injury, then I played three our of four events leading up to Augusta and then I took a little bit of time off. So my body adapted and got used to playing and practicing again. I took another three weeks off and then I went back at it on Friday. Instead of maybe gradually building it up again, I hit balls for four or five hours on Friday and did the same on Saturday. I felt a bit of stiffness on Sunday, hit a couple of drives that didn’t feel quite right.

“So I maybe should have just taken it a bit easier over the weekend but I was excited to get back, excited to get ready to play again and so maybe just being a little over-keen was to my detriment.”

That’s a completely fair and logical assessment. Long layoffs and setting the clubs aside for lengthy periods of time — like more than even a few days — are generally not normal for competitive golfers. Even at the junior level, I know I felt panicked if I went even two days without touching a club and had the unrealistic sense of fear that it throw off my rhythm and swing. Athletes tend to ignore signs of physical constraints and almost unknowingly disregard them and play through the pain, so to speak. Even if there’s a tiny voice in their head telling them to back off and rest as to not potentially risk more serious injuries, it’s tough to acknowledge and misinterpret it as a weakness. It’s like your body is telling you to back off, but your brain doesn’t want to accept it, which makes it hard to reconcile and act on the former.

Even though I don’t practice what I preach, I constantly emphasize the importance of remaining patient and making sure you’re fully healed, instead of rushing the recovery process. It’s easy to ignore, particularly when you’re young and can’t comprehend that the consequences are potentially costly — athletes across all sports are forced into early retirement and that’s the most frustrating and maddening thing in the world for a competitor.

Well, good news is that Rory’s injury is preventing Golf Twitter from a frenzy of hot takes on his equipment switch (because, man, those are always so much fun and players love them, too!). However, naturally, there’s chatter over Rory working out and style of play — hie generates a lot of power (which equates to length and his status as a bomber off the tee) and what you might call an “explosive” action at impact. I have managed to avoid Twitter, but I did see a few references to this new younger generation of players who all fall under the same category as Rory in their swing styles.

The top-three ranked players in the world Dustin Johnson, Rory, and Jason Day, respectively, have modeled themselves after their childhood hero and icon Tiger Woods. But I don’t think the comparison is completely fair since Tiger really went out of his way to beat up his body and push it to unreal limits with those intense Navy Seal training camps. Working out responsibly with a trainer in the gym is bit different than the shit Tiger willingly endured.

Many have voiced concerns or at least change to the span of a pro golfer’s career, as most from the previous generations have gone on to play the Champions Tour, but this is certainly and understandably a trend that may not be the norm for this current young generation of stars. With the wheelbarrows of cash rolled out at every event around the year, modern-day stars have so much money between tournament winnings and endorsement bucks that there’s no need to prolong their careers. In fact, some of the younger guys have expressed the desire to retire at some point, like around 40, or whenever they no longer feel competitive enough to win majors, and pick up another hobby or take up a cause or whatever they hearts desire. It’s not crazy to predict the Rorys and J-Days in golf will experience shorter careers that are hampered or forced into early retirement due to injury because of the impact and explosive nature of their swings

Meanwhile, McIlroy felt like his score didn’t properly reflect how well he played.

“I guess everyone’s probably up here saying the same, it didn’t seem as hard as what the scores reflect out there,” he said. “I’m even par for the tournament and I’m only five or six back. I thought that the course was a little more gettable than that. But it just shows, it’s Sawgrass, it’s tricky, you got to hit some really quality shots to get the ball close and give yourself opportunities for birdies.

“I didn’t make many mistakes out there, so didn’t play the par-5s quite how I wanted to, but I shot under par at the end of the day and I’m in for the weekend, which was the main objective going out this morning.”

I can’t help but think perhaps it would’ve been better in the longterm had Rory missed the cut to rest the back and receive treatment over the weekend instead of grinding it out for two more days at Sawgrass, which beats you up to a point that can be maddening or at least very frustrating.

The British press is understandably concerned with Rory’s health and the results of the MRI, as the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship takes place the week after next at Wentworth, just outside London. (I’ll be there, though! Yay! Because I know you definitely care.)

Fingers crossed.