Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke believes Rory McIlroy can contend for a fifth major title this week, despite his long injury lay-off.
McIlroy’s last competitive round was a closing 66 in the US Open on June 21, the world number one then rupturing a ligament in his left ankle during a game of football with friends on July 4.
The 26-year-old was forced to miss the defence of his Open title at St Andrews and last week’s Bridgestone Invitational, but has confounded expectations by declaring himself ready to defend his US PGA crown at Whistling Straits.
“No, I’m not surprised to see him back here,” said Clarke, who had joked while collecting an award on McIlroy’s behalf before the Open that his fellow Northern Irishman would not return until early next year.
“He obviously has got a wonderful team around him and he would have done everything he could to get back as quickly as possible. I’m sure with an ankle injury he would have been advised not to come back until fully fit. If you injure an ankle and keep playing on it, it gets worse and worse and worse.
“He may not be competitively sharp, for obvious reasons, but he’s world number one. He’s done many amazing things in his young career, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him contending this week.”
Former world number one Tiger Woods was also not surprised to see McIlroy back in action, but suggested an operation may still be required.
“He has good physios, he’s worked hard,” Woods said. “It’s a matter of how long is he going to have to go with it like this or is he going to have to get it surgically repaired.
“And then obviously this is going to be tough. This is going to be a tough golf course. Even the walks, from tee box to fairway, they’re not straight. They’ve got a little angulation. And it’s just a matter of how can he hold that up.
“I blew out my knee and played for a good nine months before I had it fixed, so it can be done.
“Is he probably going to be in pain? Probably, yeah. Swelling is going to probably occur, but that’s why the physios are there, and I’m sure they’ll get him organised.”
McIlroy has been at Whistling Straits for several days and told reporters on Monday he had wanted to defend his Bridgestone Invitational title last week.
“I did think about coming back last week but Steve (McGregor, his fitness coach) held me back,” McIlroy said.
“He thought it important for me to basically play a tournament behind closed doors and after I completed that successfully, it felt the right time to come.
“I’m ready to play and I expect to do well.”
McIlroy has been paired with Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson for the first two rounds, with Masters and US Open champion Spieth again having the chance to replace McIlroy as world number one.