Pain in neck nearly derailed Rory McIlroy, but he'll head to Kiawah, PGA Championship as one of the favorites

How neck pain almost kept Rory McIlroy from competing at the Wells Fargo Championship.

Pain in neck nearly derailed Rory McIlroy, but he'll head to Kiawah, PGA Championship as one of the favorites

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rory McIlroy enjoyed turning 32 on Tuesday and was feeling just fine hitting balls on the range Wednesday getting ready for one of his favorite tournaments.

One swing, however, had him wondering if he’d even get to play.

“I hit a 3‑iron, flushed it and I turned back to talk to Harry (Diamond, his caddie) and as I turned, my left side of my neck just completely locked up and I couldn’t move it,” McIlroy said. “It was really, really strange.”

McIlroy immediately shut his work on the range down and headed for treatment hoping to play in the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I iced it all of Wednesday afternoon, Wednesday night. I woke up Thursday, didn’t have much movement. Was trying to make a backswing and could only maybe take it half the way back before it started to catch,” McIlroy said. “If I had been playing Thursday morning, I probably would have pulled out, but I had enough time to get treatment Thursday morning, get it loosened up. It was still bothering me on Thursday afternoon. People probably saw the tape that was on my neck, but it sort of loosened up as the week went on.”

Wells Fargo Championship: Leaderboard | Photos

And what a week it turned out to be. McIlroy, who hadn’t won in just over 550 days and hadn’t made it to weekend play in two months, won for third time at Quail Hollow with a final-round 68.

McIlroy finished at 10-under 274 and one shot clear of Abraham Ancer. The former world No. 1 and four-time major winner now has 19 PGA Tour titles.

And now he’ll head to Kiawah Island as one of the favorites in the PGA Championship in two weeks. He won the 2012 PGA there by eight shots.

“Hopefully history repeats itself and I can get a lot of confidence from this and go forward,” he said. “But I’m just happy that I can hit the golf shots that I need to under pressure.

“It’s certainly great timing. This is obviously a huge confidence boost going in there knowing that my game is closer than it has been. I’ll be able to poke holes in everything that I did today, it’s certainly far from perfect, but this one is validation that I’m on the right track.”

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Great Britain & Ireland's secret sauce, Tyler Strafaci's grit and other Walker Cup takeaways

There was a lot to learn from the 48th Walker Cup.

Great Britain & Ireland's secret sauce, Tyler Strafaci's grit and other Walker Cup takeaways

JUNO BEACH, Fla. – Cole Hammer has long seemed destined for the kind of Walker Cup glory he found on Sunday at Seminole Golf Club. Hammer won his third match outright (after tying his morning foursomes match) to secure the Cup once again for the Americans. A few minutes later, 30-year-old Stewart Hagestad claimed the 14th and winning point.

“It means the world. I honestly had no idea that my match was going to be the clinching point but it is really special,” Hammer said. “Waited two years for this. It was really close going into this afternoon and to be able to be the one to clinch it is a cool deal.”

The Americans didn’t romp to a blowout victory the way many predicted they would this week. A stomach bug – which also affected the Great Britain & Ireland team – threw a wrench in the plans on both sides. Sickness aside, here are the major takeaways from the 48th Walker Cup:

At the end of the day, WAGR is just a number.

There was never a head-to-head match at Seminole Golf Club where a GB&I player out-ranked his opponent. The Americans were wildly ahead according to the rankings, but if we’d all paid attention to those, and awarded points accordingly, this thing would have been over before it even started.

The closest Sunday singles match, according to the WAGR, was the one between Alex Fitzpatrick (No. 12) and Pierceson Coody (No. 2). Coody birdied the 17th hole to close out Fitzpatrick for the second day in a row.

Ranking doesn’t account for much in Fitzpatrick’s mind – especially not in match play. In fact, a better ranking might even create more pressure.

“The chances are that the higher ranked player is probably a better player, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to win,” he said.

Asked if talk of rankings discrepancies lit a fire under his team, GB&I captain Stuart Wilson said he was unaware of it.

“There were a lot of comments about us hanging in well and fighting really hard,” he said. “I was more of the opinion we were letting the Americans away with it. My mindset on the whole thing, the guys played well and played really well. I think on another day, the match would have been a totally different result.”

2021 Walker Cup

Stuart Wilson, L-R, Mark Power and John Murphy watch the action on the 18th green during Foursomes at the 2021 Walker Cup at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla. on Sunday, May 9, 2021. (Scott Halleran/USGA)

What was GB&I’s secret sauce?

Windy conditions with firm, fast greens seemed to play a bit into GB&I’s hands this week, but the close outcome wasn’t so much about what GB&I did surprisingly well, as Wilson noted, but where they played solidly. There was no keep-it-close mindset, and GB&I displayed that all week.

Ultimately Wilson felt a few loose shots cost his team the victory, and took that all the way back to the foursomes sessions.

“Maybe let the Americans get away with a little but too much and a few slack shots here and there,” he said.

His plan was to win foursomes on Sunday (check) then frontload the singles lineup to try to pull it off. At times, it looked as if the math would work in their favor.

Wilson highlighted preparation and on-site practice early week, even if it was interrupted by illness, as being key in GB&I’s success.

“I felt like we were bonding really well all week, had some great team morale, some great advice from Paul McGinley, just felt good out there,” GB&I player Joe Long said.

The Walker Cup - Previews

The United States Walker Cup team, with only one player (John Pak) not pictured. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

What if the alternates were always in play at the Walker Cup?

As a Walker Cup alternate, it would be hard to bring a better disposition to the occasion than the one Cooper Dossey brought to Seminole. He found out three weeks before the matches that he would serve as an on-site alternate, a decision made in light of COVID.

As a stomach bug ripped through the team, Dossey had a real chance of playing. Ultimately, his fellow alternate Mac Meissner got into the opening four-ball session, but Dossey only spent the week outfitted with an earpiece. He appeared on the first tee with the team and walked most of Sunday afternoon with an ailing Tyler Strafaci.

“I got here on Saturday and that’s what really intrigued me was they have treated me like I was on the team from the get-go,” he said. “I’ve played every practice round with them, I’ve gotten every piece of gear they’ve gotten, my own hotel room. It’s been pretty sweet.”

Only eight players compete in the first three sessions as it is and choosing who sits among the core 10 players is already a hard decision. Interestingly, in 2019 Crosby had all four lineups decided before the matches ever started – that meant he ended up sitting some of his hottest players, notably John Pak. Crosby indicated he’d have done that again but for have to deal with so much sickness.

While alternates were certainly necessary this week, it seems unlikely they’ll be in the mix again anytime soon.

“I’m not so sure we really need traveling reserves in a regular year,” Wilson said. “I think the 10-man squad is quite good as it is because you’ve kind of got natural two reserves naturally for the first three sessions as it is. I think the 10-man squad is quite good as it is because you’ve kind of got natural two reserves naturally for the first three sessions as it is.”

The Walker Cup - Day 2

Jack Dyer of Team Great Britain and Ireland (L) meets with Tyler Strafaci of Team USA after Dyer won their match during Sunday singles matches on Day Two of The Walker Cup at Seminole Golf Club on May 09, 2021 in Juno Beach, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

Applaud Strafaci simply for staying on his feet.

Strafaci, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, took himself out of Saturday singles at the last minute. The 22-year-old said later, after a trip to the hospital for IV fluids, that he was seeing two golf balls while he was trying to warm up. In close matches such as these, it was arguably the most heroic move he could have made – Strafaci’s withdrawal allowed William Mouw to step in and score a point against Ben Jones.

On Sunday, a slightly-recovered Strafaci appeared in two sessions and by late afternoon was bending over slowly and walking gingerly. Strafaci failed to put a point on the board on the final day – though he did nearly hole his final bunker shot on the closing hole – but the sheer strength it took just to stay on his feet will be a lasting memory from these matches.

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