PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Never one to shy away from a tough question, Rory McIlroy must have known his abysmal record in the Players Championship — three trips, zero under-par rounds, three missed cuts — was going to be brought up.
He faced it head-on Wednesday on the eve of his fourth Players, ready with an excuse — well, at least for two of his visits.
“OK, the first year I came here I was in Vegas the week before. That didn’t help. The second year was my 21st birthday. That didn’t help,” said McIlroy, whose birthday is May 4. “And last year I don’t have an excuse. Last year I just didn’t play well.”
For someone of McIlroy’s pedigree — ranked No. 2 in the world, six PGA Tour victories, major championship wins each of the past two years — his failure on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass can be considered baffling. He’s never even been close to making the cut here, missing by seven shots in 2009 (74-77), three shots in 2010 (73-72), and four shots in 2012 (72-76). He skipped 2011, so frustrated by his first two trips that he chose to stay away for a year.
Safe to say he’s not a fan of Pete Dye courses?
“It’s funny, the last two starts I’ve had on Pete Dye courses, I’ve won, [at] Kiawah and Crooked Stick,” McIlroy said, referencing wins last year at the PGA Championship and BMW Championship. “This course is never . . . I think visually it’s very tough. This is a tricky golf course. You’ve got to think your way around here. It’s very strategic.”
McIlroy has faltered in the past at the Players when expectations were high. Maybe they’ve lowered a bit this year, with McIlroy still acclimating himself to new Nike equipment after a long, successful run with Titleist. He’s yet to win, with a runner-up at the Valero Texas Open his best result. He tied for 25th the following week at the Masters, and tied for 10th last week at the Wells Fargo Championship.
Back to business
Adam Scott hasn’t played since winning the Masters in a two-hole playoff over Angel Cabrera, taking three weeks to soak up the adulation that comes from being the first Australian to win at Augusta National.
It might be difficult to snap out of that and get back to tournament golf, but Scott said it’s made easier because of this venue and this tournament. He won the 2004 Players (he remains the youngest winner in tournament history), and has two other finishes of eighth or better. Last year he tied for 15th.
“I hopefully can take my head out of the clouds and come back down to earth and play some good golf,” Scott said. “I think it’s a nice week for me to come back to Sawgrass and the Players, because I’ve had such a great run here over the years. I feel like I’ve played really well here and had amazing support, so I’m excited about playing.”
Scott became the fourth player since August 2011 to win a major championship while using an anchored putting stroke, joining Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, and Ernie Els. With the US Golf Association and the R&A expected to announce soon whether their proposal to ban anchoring will take effect in 2016, Scott said he’s ready for the decision, whatever it is.
“I think I’ll be relieved when it’s all over and we can all get beyond it. I may or may not like the outcome of that, but I think we’ve all spent enough energy on it,” Scott said. “I don’t really have a backup plan. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and deal with it then. If I have to separate the putter a millimeter from my chest, then I’ll do that.”
Graeme McDowell has also had some recent success on a Dye course, winning the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town two weeks ago. He hasn’t done well at TPC Sawgrass, with a tie for 26th in 2010 his best effort in five tries. He did hold the 54-hole lead a year later before shooting a final-round 79. “It’s very difficult to avoid disaster at some point this week, hitting in the water somewhere,” McDowell said. “Very difficult to stay out of trouble for 72 holes. You’ve just got to accept the fact that you can play disciplined golf all day long, but you’re going to hit a bad shot, and you very often can pay the ultimate price around here.” . . . First-round television coverage doesn’t start on the Golf Channel until 1 p.m., but the tour’s website (www.pgatour.com) will offer live streaming coverage of two feature groups for their entire round. The morning feature group on Thursday will be Scott, McIlroy, and Steve Stricker, who begin play at 8:39. The afternoon group, with a 1:39 start time, is Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, and K.J. Choi . . . Country singer Dierks Bentley headlined a military appreciation concert on Wednesday afternoon.