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PGA Tour struggles continue for Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia at 2021 Players Championship Round 1
Rory McIlroy (left), who was paired with 1st-round leader Sergio Garcia on Thursday at the Players Championship, opens with a 79 and trails Garcia by 14 strokes.

Northern Irishman opens Players Championship with 7-over 79 as bid to end 16-month winless streak would appear to be continued

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – If TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course were a NASCAR track, it would be one designed with no guard rails, where fans would sit around one of the most brutal turns to watch the inevitable crashes.

Thankfully for stock-car racing, Pete Dye was not a track designer but instead imagined golf courses. When the late Dye designed TPC Sawgrass with a little help from his late wife, Alice, he must have had in mind something like the wild happenings Thursday at the PGA Tour’s Players Championship.

Let’s start with Rory McIlroy. The four-time major champion from Northern Ireland, who ranks 11th in the world, came into this week unsure of his game after a final-round 76 Sunday dropped him into a T-10 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

That was confirmed Thursday as McIlroy, starting on the par-4 10th hole, pulled his tee shot 10 yards left of his intended line, finding the trees that line the left side of the hole. He eventually two-putted for a double-bogey 6.

When he got to the par-4 18th, his ninth hole of the day, McIlroy still had not found his game, standing at 3 over. He proceeded to rinse two balls into the water guarding the dogleg-left hole before three-putting from 59 feet for a quadruple-bogey 8.

McIlroy would score better on the second nine, with three birdies negating three bogeys, but he nonetheless signed for a 7-over 79, his worst score in 33 career rounds at TPC Sawgrass. He trailed leader Sergio Garcia by 14 strokes (scores).

“Very hard, especially when you're trying to figure it out as you go along on course, right?” said McIlroy, reflecting upon his double bogey on the opening hole. “You're trying to figure it out, but you still know you're not really sure where the shots are coming from. It's hard to try to eliminate one side of the golf course, basically.”

McIlroy, 31, an 18-time winner on the PGA Tour, continues to struggle for his first victory since the WGC HSBC Champions on Nov. 3, 2019. Unless he finds some answers Friday, he appears to be headed to his second missed cut in six starts on the PGA Tour this year.

Kevin Na won’t even be around for the second round after he signed for an 81 and then withdrew with a back injury. His troubles came to a head when, standing 3 over 16 holes, Na rinsed a sleeve of balls at the 143-yard, par-3 17th hole, with its devilish island green, and made 8. Na had played the hole 31 previous times without getting wet.

Byeong Hun An exceeded Na’s futility at the 17th when he hit four balls into the water before he holed a 4-footer for an 11. He went from 1 over to 9 over in a matter of minutes, then double-bogeyed the 18th hole for an 83. 

Henrik Stenson, a former major champion, already was having a lousy day before he birdied the par-5 16th hole to get back to 10 over par. Stenson dunked his tee shot at the 17th, took his penalty and played from the drop zone, where he reached the green in three ... and then three-putted for a triple bogey. He shot 85 and sits dead last in the 154-player field.

The water surrounding No. 17 and its back-left hole location would prove to be a popular gathering spot for golf balls on a sun-splashed day with temperatures in the mid-70s. There were 35 balls in the water when play was suspended at 6:32 p.m. because of darkness, with 27 players still on the course. The scoring average on the 17th hole was 3.358, the second-hardest hole on the course, behind only the par-4 18th.

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