Northern Irishman returns to Players Championship as No. 1 in the world, but he emerges as someone to follow in other areas, too
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s first dance with the Players Championship and the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course 11 years ago wasn’t a very good one, but he won’t forget it, either. He had just turned 20, and spent the weekend leading into the tournament in Las Vegas, at a heavyweight fight. Not his best tournament prep. At TPC, McIlroy shot 74-77, missed the cut by a mile, then got tossed from a couple of bars in Jacksonville Beach on Friday night for attempting to use a fake ID. He would miss the cut in each of his first three Players starts.
“So, I’ve come a long way,” McIlroy said, a sheepish smile creasing his face as he recounted his first Players on Tuesday afternoon.
Yes, he has come a long way, indeed. One might say he’s well beyond turning the corner, both with his golf, which has been very, very solid of late, and in his life. Rory McIlroy is World No. 1 with a bullet once again, but this time he’s on offense, the one choosing to deliver the shots, and not duck them. He’s content knowing that no matter what he does, or what he says, he will not, and cannot, please everyone. McIlroy is closing in on 31 years old (May 4), married, and very mature. The mop-headed kid from Northern Ireland who started showing up at European events as an amateur half his lifetime ago is a leader. Refreshingly, he tells you what is on his mind, and isn’t afraid to do it. As an old Irish axiom goes, there is no fat in his words.
There was no fence-straddling when he recently spoke out against the proposed Saudi-backed Premier Golf League, a group that is dangling tens of millions of dollars to top golfers. He got out front and squashed any idea that he’d be participating, saying he “wanted to be on the right side of history,” and indicating that he wasn’t comfortable with the group writing those giant checks. To the fledgling new circuit, it was a blow.
“I would tell you that it just reminded us all of how thoughtful and thorough Rory McIlroy is,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who certainly has a keen interest in the situation. “His comments … I wasn't surprised. I was certainly proud and pleased on that given day, and candidly, as I've talked to a lot of top players in my one-on-one conversations, I've heard a lot of the same. But I thought that was a moment of leadership. That was a special time, special day.”
Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee quotes McIlroy’s statement that he made during the WGC-Mexico Championship as if it were a poetic lyric from a song: “I wasn’t real happy with where the money was coming from.”
Said Chamblee: “It was a beautiful line. And that one line is his brilliance.”
McIlroy said he feels a certain responsibility to share his views and convictions on the day’s hot topics. Many stars tend to adopt vanilla as a favorite flavor, and that’s understandable. Their world can catch fire quickly with the intense and immediate flames of social media. McIlroy is not a vanilla guy. He is comfortable being Rory McIlroy.
On the golf course, McIlroy would like to transition into taking more of a leadership role at tournaments late on Sunday afternoons. As in, winning with more frequency. He keeps on propelling himself into contention, which often is the most difficult part. In 10 global starts since winning the Tour Championship in August, McIlroy has finished outside the top 10 only once. He has top-5 finishes in seven consecutive PGA Tour starts. There is a victory in that run (HSBC China), but also some final rounds that, frankly, have been massively underwhelming.
It’s the type of “baggage” many of his peers would embrace – piling up top finishes and gobs of cash – but McIlroy has different standards, and knows he can be better. At Riviera in the Genesis Invitational last month, McIlroy made triple-bogey 7 on the fifth hole and pretty much was done. He shot 2-over 73. Sunday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, McIlroy once more seemed to be the man to beat on the board. He started two shots behind Tyrrell Hatton, who’d never won on the PGA Tour. But again, McIlroy made an early exit. A double bogey on the gettable par-5 sixth left him reeling; a tee shot hooked out of bounds on the par-4 ninth sent him packing. His 76 was his highest final round in nearly seven years.
His poor finish at Bay Hill still yielded another T-5, which is great to any mortal, but to the World No. 1, even if he’s placing process and progress above end results, it’s really all collecting trophies, is it not? Confidence is a fickle beast, and McIlroy has been navigating a somewhat tenuous tightrope of strong early play and disappointing finishes. An odd mix. It’s the forecast that calls for “sunny with a chance of showers.”
In golf, success and misery can be close street mates. Upon review, McIlroy knows it comes down to the smallest of details sometimes. At Riviera and Bay Hill, a little more caution might have gone a long way. Had he kept an approach below the hole at Riviera’s fifth, he would not have brought triple bogey into play. Likewise, at Bay Hill, he got greedy with an approach shot from sticky, thick rough on the par-5 sixth and ended up in a tough spot, in a bunker some 80 yards from a back flag. His third shot wasn’t all that far off, truthfully, but it didn’t check up enough on the firm putting surface and ran through the green, nestling into the rocks. Play more conservatively, accept your par, and he’s still in the thick of the tournament.
“They’re the things that make the difference, I guess,” he said.
McIlroy enters this week with the chance to do something no player ever has done at TPC Sawgrass, and that’s repeat as champion. Of all the courses that the PGA Tour visits, this one is the most democratic of all, allowing players of many styles, short and long, to compete and contend. It serves bashers and bunters alike. Think about the contrast in styles of last year’s first two finishers, McIlroy and Jim Furyk. On average this season, McIlroy (320.2 yards) hits it nearly 40 yards past the 49-year-old Furyk. The Stadium Course really doesn’t care who shoots the numbers. Chamblee calls the golf course “a five-sided Rubik’s Cube.”
“Nobody really is proficient at that thing,” Chamblee said. “It's a technical battle. It's a mental battle. It's a psychological battle. It's a patience battle.”
All that, he added, and a player also must show a perfect demeanor and have a good deal of luck to win. So, in trying to go back-to-back, there’s that.
Mind you, McIlroy’s early-season results in 2019-20 closely mirror those that he posted a year ago. He knows this movie. He took a run of T-4, T-5, T-4, second and T-6 into the Players last March. The tournament’s move from May to March and softer conditions proved beneficial to power players, and McIlroy was able to stripe a few more drivers than usual. This time, he did what he needed to do down the stretch, making four birdies in a six-hole dash beginning at 11 and nearly making eagle at the par-5 16th (9-iron second shot to 19 feet) before closing with two solid pars for a closing 70 and the trophy.
When all of his obligations were done and the time finally arrived when he finally could reach for a beer, it was celebratory, and this time, nobody needed to see his ID. We all know who Rory McIlroy is. The best part is that he’s quite comfortable with the man we see.
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