PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Rory McIlroy is the defending champion of a tournament that wasn’t played last year. That’s strange enough, but McIlroy actually shot a 72 on the first day of the Players Championship that was later canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic a year ago this week.

“I think I feel a bit better about that than Hideki (Matsuyama, who shot 63) does,” McIlroy said Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass, where the Players begins Thursday. “If I felt for anyone last year because of this, it was Hideki. That was obviously a hell of an opening round. I birdied my last three holes to shoot even par, so it could have been a lot worse.

“It sort of feels weird that it’s two years removed from winning but still the defending champion. But it’s nice to be back, and hopefully I can get off to a better start than I did last year, shoot something in the 60s, not be too far away from the lead and try to build on that.

“I guess it’s just nice to be back. It’s been a year since the world changed, and I think everyone here in terms of the players that are playing are just grateful that we’re back doing what we want to do, which is playing golf and trying to win tournaments.”

McIlroy has struggled in that area of late. He has not won since the 2019 HSBC Champions in China, part of a seven-stretch run of tournaments through last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational in which he never finished outside of the top five and went to No. 1 in the world.

But since the restart in June, McIlroy has played 19 events with just two top-five finishes. He was particularly frustrated on Sunday after having a shot at contending but finishing with a 76, including two balls in the water at the par-5 sixth hole that ended his chances.

“I did feel dejected, I felt disappointed,” said McIlroy, who has dropped to 11th in the world. “I think one of the biggest things is, it’s funny, I’d almost feel better if my game was worse, but it’s the inconsistency of I shot 66 on Thursday and thought, I’ve got it, I feel really good, and then I didn’t quite have it. The ups and downs are just a little too much.

“Just trying to get the bad golf a little better because the good golf is always there and the good shots will always be in there. It’s just when you’re not feeling quite 100 percent, that’s when you need to just be able to manage it a little better, and I just haven’t managed it well over the last few weeks.”

McIlroy dropped out of the top 10 in the world for the first time since early 2018, when he was 11th to start the year.

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