Rory McIlroy in good shape as he seeks to tame Sawgrass

In finishing tied-eighth behind Tiger Woods last year, McIlroy finally worked out a way to score on a course that has caused him so much grief

Rory McIlroy competing in last weekend’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow.

Rory McIlroy competing in last weekend’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow.

Tue, May 6, 2014, 05:00


Where once his head was driven demented by figuring out a way to conquer the TPC at Sawgrass, Rory McIlroy’s maturity – now an older and wiser 25-year-old – means that venturing into the Pete Dye-designed course is no longer the rubik’s puzzle it once was. The fear factor has gone, and the world number 11’s biggest concern these days is to rediscover the art of winning.

In finishing tied-eighth behind Tiger Woods last year, McIlroy finally worked out a way to score at Sawgrass. On his previous four appearances in the tournament – which this year carries a $10 million purse with $1.8 million to the winner – McIlroy failed to survive the midway cut. In 2011, so disenchanted was he with the course, and opting not to take up PGA membership that year, he stayed away completely.

Now, though, there is both a maturity and an awareness of his obligation to tee up in the PGA Tour’s flagship event. And last year’s tied-eighth place, finally, showed that the Ulsterman has the wherewithal and know-how to figure out a way to get around the course and, of critical importance, also scoring.

Three Irish
One of three Irish players in the field this week, alongside Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, McIlroy’s tied-eighth finish in Quail Hollow (his fourth top-10 in his last five outings on tour) left an edge of frustration as he moved on down to the Jacksonville area in search of a first win of the season.

McIlroy talked of his game being in “good shape” and of his “consistency” and how “solid” he was playing. In elaborating, he remarked: “I just feel like the last few weeks, it’s been one bad round a tournament that has derailed me from being right there in contention . . . I just need to put four good rounds together.

“I’m putting three good rounds together at the minute, I’m not able to quite get the fourth one in. Maybe that will all change (in Sawgrass). I’m in good shape going into the Players.”

The one area of his game which seems to remain a concern is McIlroy’s putting: he is ranked 127th in strokes gained in putting on tour. “I feel like that part of my game is heading in the right direction,” he insisted.

Indeed, of his overall game going into the Players, McIlroy – who is ranked fifth in driving distance – made the point: “I’m driving the ball really well off the tee, which is key, around Sawgrass. It’s just (about) limiting mistakes and, really, for me, around Sawgrass, it’s about not getting frustrated and about managing your game well and being mentally ready for the test that it presents.”

Final round
McIlroy’s consistency is not doing it for him, it would seem. After he finished his final round in Quail Hollow, finishing in the top 10 yet again, he told reporters: “I’m in the top 10 every week and it is fine, it’s whatever. But it’s not wins. It’s another solid week. They’re top 10s, but they’re top 10s without getting in contention either. I don’t want to back door and top 10 it every week . . . it doesn’t really get the adrenaline going.”

In moving on to Sawgrass, McIlroy – who remained at 11 in the world rankings – will be seeking to learn from last year’s experiences and to kick on and contend going into the weekend.

Woods, who claimed a second career Players last year, is an absentee – as he recovers from his back surgery – while Jason Day, winner of the WGC-Accenture Matchplay earlier in the season, is again ruled out by a thumb injury. There are 46 of the world’s top 50 ranked players in the field.

Plunging down
McDowell resumes competitive duty on a course where he has contended a number of times in the past, most notably in 2011 where he held the 54-hole lead before plunging down the leaderboard in a final round where anything that could go wrong went wrong.

On that occasion, where players woke to 4.30am alarm calls to complete their weather-interrupted third rounds, McDowell confessed to feeling his energy levels were about “two out of 10”. The Ulsterman has mapped out a relatively light itinerary since the Masters and should relish a return to a course where accuracy and putting play such strategic roles.

On the European Tour, things move closer to continental Europe with the Madeira Island Open where six Irish players – Peter Lawrie, Kevin Phelan, Gareth Shaw, David Higgins, Dara Ford and Ruadhri McGee – are in action.

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