PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — His opening tee shot suggested it was not going to be a fun day for Rory McIlroy.
Set up to cut his drive into the 10th fairway — his first hole of the Players Championship — McIlroy hit what pros call a “double-cross” and instead hooked his tee shot into the rough and started the tournament with a double-bogey 6.
His body language said it all as he headed toward the green.
He is still struggling.
The round would not get much better for McIlroy, who has lamented his inability to get the bad stuff out of his game in order to let the good stuff shine. The problem is there has been too much of the bad stuff. For example, he hit two balls in the water at the 18th hole Thursday for a quadruple-bogey 8. Later, after posting 43 on his first nine, he closed the day with a bogey at the par-5 ninth to shoot 79 — 14 shots worse than first-round leader Sergio Garcia, who played in the same group as McIlroy on Thursday.
“I just think it’s hard to recover when you just haven’t played good,” McIlroy said. “I mean, regardless, if you take the [quintuple at 18] out, it still wasn’t a very good day.”
At this time last year, when he entered this event as the defending champion before it was called off after the first round because of the coronavirus pandemic, McIlroy was coming off a stretch of seven consecutive top-5 finishes, including a win at the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions event in China.
That is his last victory.
Last year, in the final round before golf was forced into a 13-week shutdown, McIlroy struggled at TPC Sawgrass, needing three consecutive birdies to finish at even-par 72 and trail leader Hideki Matsuyama by 9 shots. Later that night, the tournament was canceled and McIlroy and the tour didn’t return until June. And when it came back, McIlroy admitted his motivation might not have come back with him. And now, his game has gone missing for stretches.
“The good stuff is there,” McIlroy said earlier this week. “It always will be. I’ll always be able to figure it out and find a way.
“But it’s when it goes slightly off, how do you manage that? I feel like over the last few years, I’ve been really good at when my game hasn’t been fully there still be able to shoot 69, 70, still being able to get it under par. I feel like the last few weeks when it hasn’t felt quite right, I’m sort of treading water and I’m just trying to shoot even par. That was sort of what it felt like last week.
“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. I just haven’t managed it well over the last few weeks.”
On Thursday, McIlroy hit just 6 of 14 fairways and 12 of 18 greens. He also needed 34 putts and ranked near the bottom of the field in strokes gained off the tee and strokes gained tee to green.
“This course, you don’t have to be that far off to get penalized a lot,” Garcia said. “So it happens. Unfortunately, he didn’t hit a good tee shot on the 10th hole, made double, which is never the kind of start you want. And then just a little bit off and just missed a couple of birdies, feels like you’re not making any ground, you try to force things a little bit and unfortunately for him it bit him a little bit.
“But I told him when we finished, just go out there [on Friday] and get it and you never know. I shot 7 under so he can shoot 7 under and hopefully make the cut.”
McIlroy, 31, fell out of the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking on Sunday for the first time in more than three years when he shot a final-round 76 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational to finish in a tie for 10th.
On Sunday at Bay Hill he hit two balls in the water at the sixth hole and walked off the course after his round muttering in frustration. He talked that day about changes he was considering, though that turned out to be heat-of-the-moment stuff.
“I think it was just me walking off the course not having my best day and I guess sort of venting a little bit to whoever was there at the time,” he said. “So that was really it.”
When the pandemic hit, McIlroy was No. 1 in the world. After the pandemic, he needed nine tournaments before finally posting a top-10 at the Tour Championship. He tied for eighth at the U.S. Open and tied for fifth at the Masters, though he was never really a factor after opening with 75. He finished 9 strokes behind winner Dustin Johnson.
Those were the only two top-5 finishes in his past 19 worldwide events. The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January was really the only event where he was truly in contention; a final-round 72 after holding the 54-hole lead saw him tie for third.
McIlroy didn’t want to blame the shutdown or the pandemic for his on-course issues.
“I think it would be wrong of me to sit here and say that life has been hard for the past year because I recognize and I think everyone else out here on tour recognizes that we’ve been very lucky compared to the vast majority of people that have had to live through this,” he said.
Still, during the long stretch when fans were not allowed, McIlroy was honest, saying it was difficult competing in silence after being surrounded by crowds for so long. Now, though, the fans are slowly coming back, but McIlroy’s game is not. He has a lot of work to do in the second round here to make the weekend. And looming is the Masters, less than a month away. It remains the one major McIlroy has not yet won.
“The good golf is in there, and I feel capable of going out and shooting good scores,” he said. “But it’s the days where you don’t feel so good that you need to manage it and get it around in a couple under par. That’s the challenge for me right now.
“I feel like I can go out there and string four good rounds together, but it’s maybe just a bit more of a challenge than it maybe felt a couple years ago. But that’s on me to try to get a little more comfortable and work pretty hard and feel like I’m in a bit of a better place with it all.”