Darren Clarke says he is confident Rory McIlroy can begin challenging again for titles as soon as he recovers fully from the injury that has plagued his 2017 season.
McIlroy, a four-time major champion, has been hampered this year by a rib problem sustained in pre-season and other concerns stemming from that, meaning he has played only 15 events.
The Northern Irishman has struggled for the most part and missed the cut last week at the Dell Technologies Championship. Given that, he has slipped from fourth to sixth in the world rankings – his lowest position since July 2014.
McIlroy could therefore be set to go winless for the first calendar year since his opening professional victory in 2009. At 51st in the FedEx Cup standings, he needs a good performance this week at the BMW Championship to climb into the top 30 and qualify for the Tour Championship, the series finale. McIlroy is the FedEx Cup’s defending champion.
He will then play the European Tour's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship early next month before shutting down his season to recover completely for 2018.
Fellow Northern Irishman Clarke, in the UAE this week to contest the Mena Tour's Dubai Creek Open, said McIlroy's decision to conclude his season early is the right move, so that his close friend and compatriot can hit the ground running in the New Year.
“It’s been a difficult year for Rory because he got injured in the first tournament and to try and play through an injury that’s niggling away, it restricts you,” Clarke said. “And then he had a limited playing schedule early because of his injury, didn’t get into any real flow and, when he did play, he pushed himself too hard.
“It’s a difficult thing. It never gave him any chance to get any real momentum this year and momentum is huge whenever you’re up at that standard of golf. And Rory tried so hard. But Rory’s the most talented player in the world, so he’ll be fine.
“He just needs to get rid of that injury, and I know he’s got a great man there in [sports scientist Dr] Steve McGregor and he’ll go see all the right people and put that injury to bed and get himself right. And when he does he’ll hopefully come out firing.”
Asked if a refreshed and reinvigorated McIlroy will represent a dangerous proposition in 2018, Clarke said: “Rory’s always dangerous. If he just holes a couple of putts. He’s Tiger Woods-esque in that way. If Rory plays well he’s a tough man to beat.”
Clarke is hoping Woods will be another to come back strong from injury. The American, a 14-time major winner, has not played competitively since he withdrew before the second round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in January.
Woods has now undergone four surgeries on his back during his career, but treated fans to some encouraging signs two weeks ago when he posted a video on social media showing him practicing his pitching.
While that heartened Clarke - he has always enjoyed a good relationship with Woods - he did sound a word of caution.
“All the pros want to see him back playing again, and hopefully he’ll get to that point that he’ll get back on tour," Clarke said. "But he’s still got quite a way to go to be able to swing the driver at the speed. While it’s good to see him hitting some pitches, he just needs a little more time to get himself back to full fitness.
“He’s one of the best players, if not the best player the game has ever seen. Tiger’s not going to come back until he’s ready to come back. As a friend and as a professional golfer, I’d love to see him come back sooner rather than later.
“But I don’t think this time he’s going to make any mistake with injuries like he has done before in trying to come back a little too soon. Hopefully whenever we do see him back out on tour, he’ll be a very fit and a ready-to-go player again.”