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McIlroy enjoying challenge of cracking Sawgrass code

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Rory McIlroy moves into the weekend closer to “cracking the code.”

That’s what the world No. 1 called the challenge The Players Championship presents him.

The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course isn’t the kind of test you imagine playing to McIlroy’s strengths, not with the claustrophobic confines limiting his power and the use of his favorite club, his Thor’s hammer. As much as McIlroy loves to hit driver, he has learned to mostly leave it in his bag making his way around with a game plan more conservative than he’s accustomed.

That’s the challenge that would make a victory this weekend extra meaningful to him.

Winning on a course like this would add to McIlroy’s already impressive golf pedigree.

It would say something about the breadth of his skill, smarts and temperament.

“I feel like it would make me a more complete player,” McIlroy said on the eve of this championship.

With a 1-under-par 71 Friday, McIlroy moves into the weekend tied for 13th, four shots off the lead.

“A lot can happen, and I feel like I’m in a decent position,” McIlroy said.

So much for the sentiment that architect Pete Dye’s design leveled the field for world No. 2 Jordan Spieth in his pairing with McIlroy through the first two rounds. McIlroy enters the weekend in contention while Spieth is going home after missing the cut.

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Listening to McIlroy and Spieth talk about the Stadium Course earlier this week, it was easy to conclude that the design favored Spieth, because it appeared to take away McIlroy’s biggest advantage, his power. It was easy to ignore McIlroy’s assertion that he likes this golf course and relishes the challenge to “win a different way.” He meant it, though. You see it in how he’s dissecting Dye’s design.

“I’ve always enjoyed this golf course, but it has taken me awhile to learn to play it,” McIlroy said. “You’ve just got to do everything well.”

Therein lies the bonus for McIlroy winning here, knowing he did the extra work to “crack the code,” that he pulled on a deep well of diverse talents.

“A little bit like Wentworth last year, where that's a golf course I had always struggled on, but I found a way to get it done,” McIlroy said of his victory at the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship.

McIlroy got himself within two shots of the lead late Friday at The Players before a stumble coming home. He tried to reach the 16th green with a big cut from the rough but overcooked it, carving his shot in the water. He made bogey.

“I limited the damage, only made a bogey,” McIlroy said. “That's what you sort of have to do around this course, just keep the mistakes to a minimum and pick off your birdies where you can.”

And play conservatively, he said, even when Dye tempts you to attack.

“I was pretty bored out there,” McIlroy said. “I'm not sure how you guys felt about watching it. Just try and hit fairways, hit greens, pick off my birdies when I could.”

That’s what McIlroy calls cracking the code.