Victory at The Players Championship, the fifth ‘Major’, has given the former world No 1, Rory McIlroy, some much-needed confidence, writes CHRIS COX.
For all the distraction, doubt and ridicule Rory McIlroy endured throughout the past several months, he always stayed true to himself.
That wasn’t always the case. For far too long, the 29-year-old often let his poor play on the course define the round that followed. And perhaps worse, he let it negatively impact his demeanour away from the game as he lived his day-to-day life.
‘It’s maturity, I think,’ he says. ‘It’s been about focusing on my attitude over the past six or seven months, especially my attitude to golf, and not letting golf define who I am as a person, trying to keep the two things separate. One thing I used to do in the past was let what I shot that day influence who I was, or my mood.
‘I’ve worked hard on trying to keep those two things separate, because who I am as a person isn’t who I am as a golfer, and it took me a while to get to that point where I realised who those two people were.’
Of course, any avid follower of the game understands that’s probably been difficult of late, as golf statisticians and commentators pointed out – sometimes rather gleefully – that the Northern Irishman was on a stretch of nine straight defeats when he started in the fourth round’s final pairing. Three of those instances have come since the calendar turned to 2019, though it would be hard to blame McIlroy too much for any of those failures.
First came the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where McIlroy opened with three consecutive rounds in the 60s, only to drop into a tie for fourth with a final-round 72. It just so happened that Xander Schauffele dominated the field with a course-record, 11-under 62 to capture the victory.
Then came the WGC-Mexico Championship, where even though McIlroy appeared in the final group, he was never in any legitimate contention as Dustin Johnson breezed to a five-shot triumph. McIlroy finished runner-up.
Finally, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, McIlroy appeared primed to successfully defend his title, only to shoot a closing 72, good for a tie for sixth with three others. Francesco Molinari ended up winning with an eight-under 64, four shots clear of the 2018 champion.
‘I feel like I managed the first six weeks, or six tournaments, of the year very well, even with some noise around me, whether it was, “He can’t close, he can’t play on Sundays, blah, blah, blah”,’ McIlroy says. ‘I’ve just got to do my own thing, and if I concentrate on me and control what I can do, good golf and a good attitude take care of the rest.’
That maturity, control and attitude finally came through for McIlroy at The Players Championship in mid-March, where he once again arrived for the final round within striking distance of a win.
This time, he sealed the deal.
Despite a wild final round that saw a host of players take their shots at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, it was McIlroy who stood tall at the end. He carded a closing, two-under 70 to finish at 16-under overall, one shot better than local favourite Jim Furyk. It was his 15th career PGA Tour win and first since the Arnold Palmer Invitational one year ago.
‘I think all the experiences I’ve had over the past few weeks, in terms of trying to win and not getting over the line, definitely helped me,’ he said. ‘Maybe if I hadn’t had those, I wouldn’t be sitting up here with this trophy, so I’m thankful and grateful for those experiences I’ve had this year.
‘Yes, it would have been nice to maybe get another win, but it sort of made it all worth it, the fact this win has come at this golf tournament, where Sawgrass and I didn’t have the greatest relationship starting off.’
McIlroy’s conflict with the Stadium Course wasn’t all that different from the mental battles he has endured to begin this season. He missed the cut in each of his first three career starts at TPC Sawgrass and failed to card a sub-70 round until breaking through with a tie for eighth in 2013. He has, for the most part, mastered Pete Dye’s creation ever since, carding a tie for sixth, another tie for eighth and a tie for 12th before this year’s win.
‘I came here as a 19-year-old in 2009, missing the cut, and getting kicked out of bars in Jax [Jacksonville] Beach for being underage, so I’ve come a long way in those 10 years,’ he said. ‘To think about that guy, and where I’m at now, it’s beyond my wildest dreams that I’d be sitting up here with 24 worldwide wins, four Majors and five Ryder Cups played. At that point I didn’t know what to expect. I came on Tour and all I wanted to do was keep my card, and from there you grow, you learn and you become a better player, and you realise that there’s a lot more you can achieve.’
And as for McIlroy’s recent mental approach, he insists he has remained disciplined by not reading any press clippings about himself – either good or bad – which has allowed him to leave each tournament feeling pleased with his performance. When he has reflected on the 72 holes each week – rather than the final two, for instance – McIlroy has been content with his effort.
He’s recounted reading several books on mental approach and worked with those among his inner circle on figuring himself out. It’s been a long journey where those closest to McIlroy have helped point him in the right direction.
‘I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do,’ he says. ‘I looked at my stats at the end of every week. I’m leading in strokes gained tee to green, I’m putting well, my around-the-greens is good. Everything was in a really good place; that’s why I was preaching patience, and it was just a matter of time.’
McIlroy would require every bit of that newfound patience over the final 18 holes at The Players, an event that annually features the deepest and best field in golf.
He entered one shot behind Jon Rahm to start the day, and the Spaniard quickly conceded that lead with three bogeys over his first three holes. But McIlroy failed to capitalise, approaching the par-four 4th at even par only to see his second shot go in the water. He settled for double-bogey, paving the way for a flurry of players to try their hand at the lead.
‘I think the toughest part is seeing yourself up there and 10 or 11 guys with a chance,’ McIlroy said after The Players. ‘There have been a few times where I’ve been in that position and I’ve taken the tournament by the scruff of the neck. I drew on those experiences today and stayed patient and in the right frame of mind, especially being two-over par through four.
‘I guess that was the hardest thing, just getting myself to the point mentally where you say, “Well, why not me? This is my tournament, I’m going to finish it off”.’
Troubles and all, McIlroy never folded, the pressures of previous misses not factoring in this time. He matched Furyk
at 15-under with a birdie at the par-four 15th, then took the lead for good on the ensuing hole with a two-putt birdie on the par-five.
McIlroy called his second shot at the 15th by far his best of the day. Using a 6-iron, he stuck his approach from 180 yards to 13 feet, ensuring himself a birdie. It quickly erased the sting of bogeying the previous hole and set him up for the clinching birdie at the par-five 16th.
McIlroy then two-putted on the treacherous two closing holes to claim The Players, one of the elusive titles that have evaded him for so long. The win made him one of just three players to win the FedExCup, a Major, a World Golf Championships event and The Players. The others? Tiger Woods and Henrik Stenson.
McIlroy has grown so much since those early teenage struggles at TPC Sawgrass. ‘It’s not just a win, it’s a massive win,’ he said, staring at his new 24k gold Players trophy. ‘It’s a win at a tournament I’ve never won before on a golf course I’ve had mixed results on, so I feel like I’m going to take even more from that.’
A fortnight later McIlroy came up against Woods in a dream WGC-Dell Technology Match Play last-16 encounter. Both played in a showdown that caught the imagination of the crowd, but Tiger prevailed, 2&1. Still, it set both men up for another look at the Green Jacket of The Masters.
McIlroy’s prospects of securing that elusive Grand Slam, however, disappeared for a fifth year after a battling opening round of 73 was followed by matching 71s at Augusta. This left him 12 shots off the lead heading into the final round, where he shot 68 to finish tie-21st.