McIlroy eyes PGA Tour return

THE BRITISH weather’s got a lot to answer for. Rory McIlroy has revealed he is set to buy a house in America and is “leaning towards” resuming membership of the PGA Tour. It seems Europe is about to lose its shining star.

When asked why the change of heart, McIlroy blamed the rain and wind at the Open. It was a funny line but he acknowledged it was much more complex than that. He cited his belief that “I play my best golf over here”. And he also confessed that the recent break-up with his childhood sweetheart, Holly Sweeney, had “a little bit” to do with it. “Definitely,” he said.

Sources within Team Rory also suggested he was struggling with all the attention in his homeland and being “Northern Ireland’s superstar”. The 22-year-old will still appear on his home continent, but the move will be a blow for the European Tour. McIlroy tore up his US card after just 12 months last year, speaking of his dislike of the end-of season FedEx Series, missing his home as well as some of his favourite events in Europe.

The PGA Tour has made strenuous efforts to persuade golf’s young phenomenon into a U-turn and was thrilled when McIlroy approached it yesterday to ask about the possibility of a return. In truth, it was akin to David Beckham asking Preston if they would like him back. With the PGA Tour’s TV contract up next year this was just the news its commissioner wanted to hear. There could be tens of millions resting on this, as the reaction confirmed. “We would be ecstatic if it happens. Rory is a huge asset and an immense talent,” said Andy Pazder, the PGA Tour’s chief of operations.

McIlroy said: “I spoke to them today and I’m leaning towards taking my card up again, definitely. I feel as if I play my best golf over here. I’m very comfortable in this country. I’m going to look at a few houses down in Florida after the USPGA [next week]. I’m definitely looking towards coming back and playing a full schedule over here.”

What qualifies as a full schedule? Well, members are required to play a minimum of 15 events and must compete in the FedEx Cup. He would also be obliged to play in the Players, aka “the fifth major”, a tournament he does not like. All these cons, he says, come under the title of “some things I have to accept”. Sources suggested McIlroy will probably end up playing in the region of 17 to 18 events in the States, which would restrict his European Tour appearances to six or seven. “My game really suits playing courses over here,” said McIlroy, who will stay with his friend and countryman Graeme McDowell in Lake Nona, Orlando in two weeks’ time while he hunts for a new property. Speculation will inevitably fall on his burgeoning relationship with Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish tennis player. He alluded to their relationship, as well as how difficult it is to maintain a private life. His peers will confirm it is a damn sight easier to do so in a gated community.

The revelation overshadowed the build-up to the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, which tees off here today, and most notably the reappearance of Tiger Woods after a 12-week absence with injury. Woods, now ranked 28th in the world, will partner the Open champion Darren Clarke in the first two rounds and despite McIlroy’s ever-growing fame over here, will command the brunt of the focus. McIlroy himself said how enthralled he was by Woods’ return.

“It’s very compelling,” said the US Open champion. “Everyone wants to know how he’s going to do, how he’s going to play, how is his knee. It’ll be interesting. The last tournament he played [the Players in May] he had to pull out after nine holes. Nobody expects him to come out and play well. I’m sure he expects to compete, but given the length of lay-off and considering he’s only been able to hit full shots for a few weeks, it would be an unbelievable effort to contend. So I just think getting through 72 holes and maybe finishing top 20 would be a really good effort.”

Like McIlroy guessed, Woods has other ideas. The 35-year-old played his first 18 holes in front of a crowd since the Masters in April and looked sharp in practice. There was plenty of interest in his caddie, Bryon Bell, just as there will be when the $8.5m spectacular starts proper. Bell is a novice bagman and is better known as Tiger’s childhood friend named by at least three of Woods’ mistresses as being “the travel agent” in their secret trysts.

Now he has another duty and the critics will pounce on any mistakes by Bell. It places a little more pressure on Woods’ shoulders, as if he needs it. Winless in 21 months, Woods’ first 10 years at Firestone brought seven victories and three other top four finishes. Then he finished 78th out of a 80-man field. From being 99-under for his first 40 rounds here, suddenly he was 18-over for his last four rounds. The transformation was outrageous and in many experts’ minds perfectly encapsulates the downfall.

Which Woods will we see today? Will his left knee and Achilles hold up, or has he once again rushed his return as he admits to doing so at the Players in May? Then he hobbled through just nine holes in an embarrassing 42 shots before withdrawing. That was his last appearance, so no wonder the bookmakers do not rate his chances very highly.

The 35-year-old is long odds-on (at 8-15) to finish outside the top 10. In his Tuesday press conference he trotted out his usual line of “I’m here to win a golf tournament”. In truth, to survive four rounds might be a more realistic expectation. But then, Woods claims not to have felt this heatlhy “for years”, so maybe Akron is in for a stunning resurrection.

The city was the first place in the world to host a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Time for the former world No 1 to stand up an remind us who he is. Or, at least, was.

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