Rory McIlroy looking at the bigger picture: trying to win again

As he prepares for Sawgrass, world number one says he is working on ‘mid-range putting’

Rory McIlroy watches his tee shot on the second hole during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament in Orlando, Florida on Sunday. Photograph: Phelan M Ebenhack/AP

A milestone of sorts, given he is just the third player in the history of the world rankings to reach three digits, but Rory McIlroy's defence of the Players at Sawgrass – where he will spend the 100th week of his career as world number one, only behind Tiger Woods and Greg Norman in the all-time list – also brings with it the bigger picture of trying to win again. Just as it was a year ago.

Indeed, there is an uncanny similarity between McIlroy’s form in the early part of 2019 when compared to his efforts so far in 2020. This time last year, the Northern Irishman had started his new year with a run of 4-5-4-2-6; this year, his run has seen him go 3-5-5-5. Contending each and every time, but just not getting the job done at the close of business.

“There’s a lot of similarities between the start of this year and the start of last year,” conceded McIlroy, “a lot of chances not converting, but knowing that the game’s pretty much there. So, just keep knocking on the door again.”

I'm holing out pretty well for the most part but just giving myself a lot of chances between that 12- and 20-foot range

McIlroy's playing diary for the coming weeks is a demanding one, aimed at hitting the Masters at Augusta National with his game face on. His tied-fifth finish in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, at least maintaining that streak of top-five finishes so far this year, kicked off a run that takes in the Players, a week off next week, and then three tournaments in a row at the WGC-Dell Matchplay, the Valero Texas Open and finishing up at Augusta.


‘Win percentage’

Although without a win since the WGC-Champions in Shanghai last November, McIlroy observed: "I'm doing what I expect myself to do every week, which is giving myself a chance. I give myself a chance most weeks and, more weeks than not, it's not going to happen. That's just the way golf is. I mean, I think my win percentage on tour is like 10 per cent and I think that's pretty high for anyone not being Tiger Woods. So, yeah, it's one of those things. I've had chances and I wish I had converted one of them over the last few weeks, but I'm still in good form. I'm playing some good golf. And hopefully if I just keep putting myself in those positions, it's only a matter of time."

There are no particular areas of McIlroy’s game which he feels need any major work, perhaps just a bit of time spent on what he called “my mid-range putting, sort of between 12 and 20 feet. I’m holing out pretty well for the most part but just giving myself a lot of chances between that sort of 12- and 20-foot range and not converting many of them.”

McIlroy will form part of the headline act at Sawgrass, where he is with world number two Jon Rahm and world number three Brooks Koepka in the marquee group for the opening two rounds. Both Rahm and Koepka have the chance to leapfrog McIlroy to the number one spot depending on results.

‘Mentally demanding’

McIlroy is one of three Irish players in the field at Sawgrass, where Graeme McDowell – "It was a very mentally demanding test, especially when you don't have your A-game," he said of the tough conditions at the Arnold Palmer – and Shane Lowry, who – wisely, perhaps – took a week off on a course that has battered him in the past, are also in the field for the big-money showpiece of the PGA Tour.

Tiger Woods, as confirmed by his manager Mark Steinberg last week, will be an absentee. In social media posts, Woods admitted, "I have to listen to my body and properly rest when needed. My back is simply just not ready."

No timeframe has been revealed for when Woods will likely reappear on tour, as he heads into his defence of the Masters title at Augusta in a month’s time.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times