PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Now that will take the fun out of shooting 64.
Rory McIlroy didn’t look like a guy who just posted his best round ever at The Players Championship as he marched off the course Friday at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. He didn’t look like a guy glowing over his swift climb into weekend contention with a chance to win the PGA Tour’s flagship event for the first time.
McIlroy walked off the last green looking as grim faced as the guys headed to slam their trunks on their way out of town after a missed cut.
He looked as if he wanted to snap the lob wedge that failed him after a bogey at the closing hole.
McIlroy’s finish turned sour after he found himself standing over a 91-yard wedge shot in the middle of the fairway at the ninth hole, his 18th of the day. He needed to make birdie to shoot a 10-under-par 62, the best round in the 43-year history of The Players. He needed a par to shoot 63 and gain a share of the tournament record.
“A few guys have shot 63 here, it would have been nice to shoot 62,” McIlroy said.
An otherwise exhilarating day full of so much to feel good about left him feeling something else.
“Disappointment,” McIlroy said. “I'm frustrated. It should have been a couple better.”
McIlroy was at 8-under 136 when he signed his scorecard, two shots off the lead.
“I feel like I should be tied for the lead,” McIlroy said. “So, yeah, I'm disappointed, but there are still two more days to go. That's the nice thing. I'm in a good position heading into the weekend, but it really depends on what the guys do this afternoon. Hopefully, I'm still not too far behind going into the weekend.”
We heard the hungry competitor in McIlroy in those frustrating, raw moments after his round, but as he made his way from one interview station to another after signing his scorecard, the bigger picture of the day became clearer to him. He was on fire for 17½ holes. He pounded drivers deep and straight. He hit a lot of wedges, which have frustrated him of late, tight into pins. He needed just eight putts over his first eight holes. He shot 29 on the back nine (his first nine) to equal the course record.
McIlroy was brilliant for all but the final 10 minutes of his 4-hour and 45-minute round.
“Obviously, I have to take a lot of positives from it,” McIlroy said. “I played well. I took advantage of the conditions.”
McIlroy is seeking his first victory since winning the European Tour’s DP World Championship last November. He is seeking his first title at The Players Championship after top-10 finishes in each of the last three years.
“I’m happy with my game,” McIlroy said. “I’m in good position even though I finished a little bit frustratingly, but these things happen.”
McIlroy gave himself a chance at the course record after hitting a 3-wood down the middle at that last hole, leaving himself 275 yards to the pin. Why didn’t he go for the green in two?
“I sort of talked myself out of it in the fairway,” McIlroy said. “Any time I’ve went for the ninth green in two here, I've either hit into the trees on the left, or I've hit it out to the right, into those grassy mounds that Pete Dye loves. It has never really worked out for me when I went for the green.”
McIlroy said he took 5-wood out of his bag this week and replaced it with a 2-iron. He said he might have gone for the green if he had left the 5-wood in his bag.
“I could have got a little bit more height,” he said. “Yeah, I was thinking about it. I wanted to make birdie and shoot 62. There's no doubt about that.”
From 91 yards, McIlroy tried to finesse a lob wedge at a hole location cut near the front of the green.
“I might have left myself a little bit too close,” McIlroy said. “It was a tough shot with it being downwind and the pin so tight. I was trying to get sort of cute with it, I guess, and I just hit it too easy.”
McIlroy’s approach ballooned short, landing in deep Bermuda rough on a slope in front of the green. He tried to pop out his chip, but he barely got the ball on the fringe of the green, leaving himself a 21-foot putt for par. He ran that past.
McIlroy hasn’t been happy with his wedges this season. He ranks 116th on tour on approaches between 50 and 125 yards, but he was stiffing wedges on Friday. That last lob wedge approach was his worst all day.
“I could have been a couple lower, but it was still a great round,” McIlroy said.
And it gives him a chance to have a great weekend.