Rory McIlroy steadies ship but loses ground at Sawgrass

The world number two is struggling with a back injury and will have an MRI on Monday

Rory McIlroy hits his second shot on the tenth hole during the second round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Photo: Tannen Maury/EPA

Rory McIlroy has had a lot of transition in his golfing career and this week at the Players Championship was always going to be another one of those weeks.

In his first event since becoming a married man, using new Taylormade clubs and golf balls as part of a $100m deal, a made cut and the chance of moving up the leaderboard at the weekend is a success.

On top of that was the news on Thursday that he had suffered pain in his back after the round.

When asked about it after the second round, McIlroy said that he will be going for an MRI on Monday and may have to take some time off.


“Practicing on Monday it didn’t feel right,” he said.

“We just hope it’s not the same thing (the injury that kept him out for a number of weeks before the Masters) - the joint and the rib. I’m going to go get an MRI on Monday and might have to rest for a week or two. I can’t hit many balls on the range because repetitive shots hurt.”

He did however say that he should be fit and healthy for the weekend and, after Louis Oosthuizen and Kyle Stanley both fired superb 66s to lead at nine under, McIlroy will have to go low after his round of 71 left him level par for the tournament.

“If I go out tomorrow morning and post a good score I can get back in the tournament,” McIlroy said.

Meanwhile, Graeme McDowell looked to be making a real charge up the leaderboard before a disappointing back nine saw him slip back.

The 2010 US Open champion - who claimed a top 20 finish at the Wells Fargo Championship last week - picked up four birdies on his front nine, dropping only one shot, to get to four under and within three of the leaders at the time. However, after starting at the 10th he made bogeys at the first, fourth and eight on his way in to slip back to one under.

For Shane Lowry it was a particularly disappointing day as he fired a 76 to finish six over and miss the cut - his first since the Masters - largely thanks to two double bogeys in his round.

McIlroy himself suffered a double in the first round but had no such disasters on Friday, signing a clean scorecard which included just two birdies and one bogey.

Earlier in the week Paul McGinley had given a very blunt assessment of McIlroy’s prospects with his new equipment when he said that the four-time Major winner “isn’t very close at all” to reaching the peak of his powers again, saying that he will need time to bed in the new equipment.

The evidence is there to support McGinley’s assessment, as well. In 2013 the Northern Irishman suffered a nightmare season after switching to Nike before going on to win two Majors and reach world number one the following year. Patience is certainly the name of the game.

And that’s the virtue McIlroy showed on Friday as he plotted his way around the the Pete Dye-designed layout.

One of the new clubs in his bag is a one-iron - something he made good use of on a course which demands accuracy.

Alongside him, world number one Dustin Johnson implemented a similar strategy but he couldn't build on his opening round of 71, going two shots worse to sit alongside McIlroy at level par.

The final member of the marquee three-ball - Justin Thomas - was at the same mark after matching McIlroy's 71.

Meanwhile, 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett’s nightmare run since claiming the green jacket continues as he withdrew from the tournament with a back injury.

Willett, who split with long-time caddie Jonathan Smart last month, was 11 over par when he retired after nine holes of the second round.

The 29-year-old, who has been hampered by back problems throughout his career, struggled to an opening 79 and had covered the back nine at Sawgrass in 40 before calling it a day.

Willett wrote on Twitter: “Not good to have to withdraw but swinging very poorly is putting a lot of unwanted strain on the back.. body and mind need a rest!!”