PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – From lowered expectations come unexpected results.
While it’s hard to imagine the world’s second-ranked player beginning any week on the PGA Tour with a “nothing to lose” mentality, Rory McIlroy’s record at TPC Sawgrass speaks for itself.
In three trips to the Tour’s flagship stop, the Ulsterman had never broken par, never made a cut and never sniffed a leaderboard, which might explain why he happily skipped the so-called fifth major in 2011.
As McIlroy’s Northern Irish stable mate Graeme McDowell figured on Wednesday, sometimes love for a golf course can be unrequited.
Early Thursday, McIlroy set out for this week’s Players Championship grouped with the newest member of the Grand Slam club, Adam Scott, who was a tad gutted when the announcer didn’t introduce him as the 2013 Masters champion.
“I think (the announcer) said, ‘The 2004 Players champion,’ which is good,” McIlroy recalled. “For me at least he didn’t say, ‘Now on the tee, Rory McIlroy, who has missed three cuts at The Players.’”
So forgive McIlroy, the young man who has won two majors by a total of 16 strokes and has slowly played his way back into form following a sluggish start to the season, if he arrived at TPC Heartbreak with a distinct devil-may-care attitude. And don’t be surprised when that indifference leads to something entirely unexpected.
On a perfect day for scoring, McIlroy joined a collective birdie barrage by going 2 under through his first three holes and turning at 5 under. His opening 66 left him tied for second place and three strokes behind surprise early leader Roberto Castro.
“I feel a lot more relaxed coming into this year,” McIlroy said. “Whatever I do this week it will be better than what I’ve done before.”
But then McIlroy’s quick start at The Players goes well beyond lowered expectations. After going 0-for-3 on the quirky north Florida layout, he also changed his strategy to a more measured approach for this year’s edition.
For the record, McIlroy didn’t hit a single driver on the front nine and teed off with the big stick just three times (at Nos. 11, 14 and 16) on Day 1.
“I’m figuring out how to play Pete Dye golf courses,” said McIlroy, who actually has won Tour events on Dye-designed courses (2012 PGA at Kiawah Island and 2012 BMW at Crooked Stick). “There’s no point in hitting driver off the two par 5s on the front. I can hit 3-wood at No. 2 and still reach the green (in two shots). This golf course is about keeping your ball in play.”
There’s also something to be said for keeping your ball below the hole to allow for more aggressive putts, an option McIlroy, or anyone else for that matter, didn’t have on last week’s much-maligned putting surfaces at Quail Hollow Club.
Although he tied for 10th at the Wells Fargo Championship, McIlroy ranked 68th in the field in putting and had just two one-putts on his closing nine in Charlotte, N.C.
McIlroy also finally succumbed to a putter change that his short game coach Dave Stockton Sr. had been pushing for some time. On Tuesday, Dave Stockton Jr. delivered an identical Nike Golf Method putter to McIlroy that he’d been using. The only difference was about 1 ½ degrees of additional loft.
“With the forward press I knew he could do it. There is no mechanical change needed. I want the fastest roll possible,” Stockton Sr. said. “I told his caddie it was coming in Charlotte, ‘I want him to try this before he gets too late in the year.’ (McIlroy) texted me last night and said how it felt really, really good.”
The result was a 27-putt performance that may seem statistically nominal, but is a monumental improvement for a player who hits as many greens in regulation as the world No. 2 does (he hit 15 of 18 Thursday).
For the day, McIlroy made just one putt over 5 feet – a 14-footer for birdie at the 16th hole – but was a perfect three-for-three from 4 to 8 feet. By comparison, he converted just 10 out of 22 attempts from the same distance for the week at Quail Hollow.
Call it the “Three Little Bears” syndrome for McIlroy this week. The new putter Stockton had made is McIlroy’s third this season, the first was a tad too heavy, the second didn’t have quite enough loft, and the third seems just right, at least through 18 holes.
“I would be really confident in his ability to make the short ones with more loft,” Stockton said. “I told him two things, ‘You have enough loft and you are on really good greens. You are going to be shocked with what you are going to do.’”
If Thursday’s 66 wasn’t shocking, it was at least unexpected considering his Sawgrass scorecard. It’s a change of fortune that didn’t escape McIlroy following what was, for him, a historic day regardless of where he ended up on the leaderboard.
“It’s my first under-par round here on this golf course,” he smiled. “I’ll take whatever I can get.”
Maybe McIlroy didn’t solve the Dye dilemma on Thursday, but at least he’s beginning to understand what the question is on the Stadium Course.