McIlroy in good form, eager to tame TPC Sawgrass


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy described TPC Sawgrass this week as “tricky.”

Neither has fared particularly well here.

For all of his glittery accomplishments, McIlroy has yet to solve the mystery that is the Stadium Course, struggling mightily in the event that boasts the strongest field and the biggest purse.

He’s not alone, of course.

Woods’ lone triumph here was his better-than-most moment in 2001. Phil Mickelson has won only once, in ’07. Area residents Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk rarely contend at The Players, but Fred Funk and Tim Clark have won. Madness reigns.

But McIlroy hasn’t even seen Sawgrass on the weekend, owning the kind of record that only a butcher could love: CUT-CUT-CUT. In six career rounds here, he’s yet to break par.

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“This is a tricky golf course,” he said. “It’s a golf course where you look at the field and you’re like anyone can win. It doesn’t really suit any type of player. It’s one of these courses where the player who plays well that week will win.”

Pressed further about his oh-fer, McIlroy explained it thusly:

In 2009 (74-77), he arrived on-site after spending the week in Vegas. “That didn’t help.”

In 2010 (73-72), it was the week after his 21st birthday. “That didn’t help.”

And in 2012 (72-76), well, McIlroy didn’t really have an excuse. “I just didn’t play well,” he said.

Indeed, last year’s Players, remember, was the start of his abbreviated slump, a stretch of four missed cuts in five starts that cost him a chance at two majors. All was forgotten a few months later, of course, when his five-win season was capped by Player of the Year honors on both sides of the pond.

So, by comparison, McIlroy arrives here with a better mindset, a decidedly sharper game, even without a victory to his credit.

After switching equipment at the start of the season, he has shown signs of life with a backdoor top 10 at Doral, a runner-up in San Antonio and a sustained run in Charlotte.

Statistically, he’s sixth in driving distance (301.1 yards), 17th in scoring average (70.19) and fourth in greens in regulation (71.16 percent) – the latter being the surest sign yet that McIlroy’s ball-striking has returned to its previous heights.

Oh, no, that’s not quite right.

This is:

McIlroy – for all of the criticism he has endured for the better part of four months – is ranked No. 1 in the Tour’s all-around statistic. Yes, first.

“He’s starting to show signs of the old Rory coming back, no doubt,” Graeme McDowell said. “That golf swing doesn’t change; it doesn’t need a lot of oiling. He’s just kind of settling down to the new pressures on him that he’s put on himself with all these amazing deals and new equipment and trying to prove new things to new sponsors and new people, and trying to prove things to himself. It seems they’ve all settled down now, and he’s ready to play golf.”

McIlroy’s troubles at Quail Hollow came on the greens, which were so patchy and bumpy that several top-tier players decided to withdraw before the tournament.

The greatest challenge at TPC Sawgrass, however, isn’t the fiery, Bermuda grass greens. No, like virtually every Pete Dye track, it’s visually intimidating off the tee.

Landing areas that appear small but actually are quite generous.

Awkward angles from tee box to fairway.

Tricks and bumps and hollows and “funky spots.”

Said Woods, “If you’re not playing well, you’re going to get exposed.”

But McIlroy, it should be noted, has won his last two starts on Dye designs, Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course and Crooked Stick. At the PGA, he was dominant from Tee to Green and won by eight. At the BMW, he carried his drives over the fairway bunkers positioned some 290-295 yards away, a high-powered luxury much of the field didn’t have.

So what gives at Sawgrass?

“It’s interesting that all the top players have bad records around here,” McDowell said. “I think there is an acceptable level of mistakes and disasters, really, around this golf course. I’m sure guys like Rory and other top players that perhaps don’t love this golf course, they’re only a couple of rounds away from getting back in love with it.”

Perhaps so. But right now, McIlroy and TPC Sawgrass are feuding lovers in need of an intervention.