Nick Bonfield discusses whether the world of professional golf missed Rory McIlroy during his injury hiatus

Did golf miss Rory McIlroy during his injury absence?

Rory McIlroy will return to action this week as he bids to defend his USPGA Championship title at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

Of course, it’s great the World Number 1 is back after injuring his ankle playing football with his friends and spending the best part of five weeks on the sidelines.

I’m not here to discuss whether that was a good idea or not, mainly because I can’t fathom the arguments of those naysayers who believe he should be wrapped in cotton wool. One of the main reasons for his success is the fact he’s been able to retain some balance and live a life outside of the sport…

Anyway, I digress. What I really want to ask is whether professional golf has missed Rory?

From a commercial standpoint, of course it has. You’d be hard pushed to present an argument suggesting his absence from the Scottish Open didn’t have some sort of impact on the number of ticket sales or television viewership figures. However, in pure golfing terms, I genuinely don’t think he’s been missed. We’ve even had an Irish winner!

That shouldn’t be misconstrued as me suggesting he’s not a big draw – far from it – but it’s been refreshing to see increased focus on some of the other compelling storylines emanating from our sport.

Journalists and golf fans have a tendency to be overly focused on the exploits of one man – perhaps a hangover from Tiger Woods’ halcyon years atop the world ranking – when the vast majority of players competing in each 156-man field are capable of winning.

While Rory has been on the sidelines, he hasn’t been in many headlines quite simply because he hasn’t needed to be.

Related: Rory McIlroy – how I became a champion

Let’s consider everything that’s happened since Rory’s unfortunate mishap and the events he’s missed, based on his previous scheduling: The Scottish Open, The Open Championship and the Bridgestone Invitational.

At the Scottish, Rickie Fowler stiffed a wedge on the 72nd hole to secure his first European Tour title and his first professional victory in Europe. Many see him as a bigger draw than McIlroy – I’m not sure I agree with this, but the number of youngsters cloaked in orange each week would add weight to such an argument.

Anyhow, the Scottish are so passionate about golf they would come in their droves to watch a professional event regardless of the strength of field.

Fast-forward a week to The Open Championship. There were so many sub-plots that McIlroy’s quest to defend wouldn’t have been the primary storyline even if he was playing. Jordan Spieth was bidding to win the career Grand Slam for the first time in the modern era and both Tom Watson and Nick Faldo were playing in their last Opens.

Throw in an amateur leader after 54 holes and as good a final-round leaderboard as you could hope to get and most would concede McIlroy’s presence simply wasn’t required. Even the pictures of him walking without crutches that surfaced on the Sunday lingered about as long as Australia’s batting line-up during the first innings of the 4th Test.

The Open Championship just goes to show how many good stories professional golf can provide. Granted, it was a particularly special week, but there’s so much happening just below the surface. With McIlroy out of the equation, these stories were given the column inches they deserved.

It’s a shame he wasn’t able to defend his Bridgestone Invitational title either, but 48 of the world’s best 50 players were on the start sheet. One of those, Shane Lowry, surged to a genuinely life-changing victory with a flawless Sunday performance. A little-known (to the American audience!) Irishman going up against a raft of former Major Champions and coming out on top provided a genuinely riveting Sunday, even on such a dull golf course. The World No.1 retaining his title would have been a much inferior story.

As talented, likeable and humble as McIlroy is, there’s only one player in the modern generation who, even to this day, has a significant impact on viewership: Tiger Woods. Anyone who disputes that claim should look at the Waste Management Phoenix Open case study.

Ticket sales surged after Woods announced his intention to play and the tournament registered record attendance. What’s more, 750 media credentials were issued – 200 more than the previous highest number – and an auxiliary media centre had to be constructed. McIlroy just doesn’t have that gravitas. No one does.

I haven’t even mentioned Woods’ plight – arguably the most gripping saga over the last couple of months. That’s the human psyche for you.

Anyhow, it’s great to welcome McIlroy back to action and his return will undoubtedly create an impact. He’s a fantastic advertisement for the game, but we learned in his absence that professional golf is more than a one-man band. In fact, it’s in as good a place as it’s been for a long time.