Rory McIlroy apparently left his best stuff in the interview room this week at the Players Championship. Following an interesting and industry-shaping press conference on Tuesday in which McIlroy discussed the future of the PGA Tour and professional golf, he was unable to show off similar aplomb Thursday in his first round at TPC Sawgrass, shooting a 4-over 76 to fall double digit strokes back of the 8-under lead.
It started poorly and didn’t get much better. McIlroy doubled his the par-4 10th hole to start the day, and the shot that led to that double — a right miss off the tee — plagued him for the next 17 holes. He bounced back with birdie at the par-5 11th, but even his biggest highlight on his first nine (the back nine on the course) wasn’t actually a highlight.
After another right miss off the tee on the 16th, McIlroy hit one of the craziest shots we’ve seen at TPC Sawgrass from an impossible position 199 yards away to 27 feet. And of course, he three-putted from there for a disappointing par. (He played the par-5s at even par, a horrible number for him.)
He wasn’t bad off the tee overall, but he wasn’t great for him and he knew it.
“I went to that new driver in Riviera, and … I wish I could use my driver from last year, but I can’t just because … basically it just wouldn’t pass the test,” he said. “These driver heads are so finicky; it’s hard to get one exactly the same. I mean, I’m obviously trying my best, trying to get something that’s as close to what I had last year. Yeah, just struggled a little bit off the tee the last couple weeks.
“There’s obviously a part of it that’s the user as well. It’s quite a lot of user error in there as well.”
McIlroy went out in 38 and came home with 38 as for the frustrating 76.
Poor putting is another theme. McIlroy made just one putt longer than 4 feet, and it came on the last hole for bogey to avoid shooting 77. Only two players had worse putting numbers than McIlroy at the time he finished; nobody had worse numbers around the greens. This was not helped by the fact that he left a shot in the bunker on that same closing hole.
Sure, his tee-to-green game was below average for him, which was the reason he didn’t score well, but his short game was unusually untidy. That’s why his number ballooned right past even par to 4 over, one of the worst scores in the morning wave.
McIlroy recovered from a 1-over 73 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week to nearly win the tournament despite sitting eight strokes down to Jon Rahm. This time, he’s 12 strokes down to Chad Ramey and 11 to Collin Morikawa. At this point, it would be shocking if he was in the mix on Sunday afternoon.
This isn’t a crazy outcome at TPC Sawgrass. Though McIlroy has been playing quite well of late and won the 2019 Players Championship over Jim Furyk, he’s also struggled at Sawgrass over most of the last six years. In five starts, he has that one win but nothing else inside the top 30. This course, it seems, has neutralized his elite ball-striking.
McIlroy will play late on Friday alongside Rahm and Scottie Scheffler as he tries to shoot something silly to play his way inside the cut and perhaps back into the tournament a bit. After Thursday’s 76, though, his chances of winning the biggest event of the year to date are next to none.