Rory McIlroy has had a very up-and-down 2013 season thus far, and it's not necessarily anything to do with his new Nike equipment or a lack of game.
The schedule has simply been too light for the 24-year-old Northern Irishman and that has been part of the reason why he's lost his No. 1 world ranking.
The Players Championship has never been kind to McIlroy. He has missed his previous three cuts at TPC Sawgrass, but in coming off of a top-10 finish at the Wells Fargo Championship in which he struck the ball magnificently, his 2013 result will be his best yet.
Pete Dye's TPC Sawgrass doesn't suit McIlroy well. He simply hasn't figured it out yet, which is odd considering his past success on Dye's other layouts (h/t PGA TOUR Media):
PGA TOUR Media @PGATOURmedia
Random: @McIlroyRory has missed all three cuts @THEPLAYERSChamp but has won last two starts at Pete Dye tracks (Kiawah and Crooked Stick).2013-5-7 20:36:33
When he teed it up at The Masters last month, just one week after a runner-up finish in the Valero Texas Open, McIlroy imploded on Saturday at Augusta National.
He shot a 79, still showing the rust from a lack of competitive rounds. This will mark the second time this season that McIlroy has entered competition two weeks in a row and that's critical.
Here's an argument to possibly be made: McIlroy lost in a playoff at Quail Hollow in 2012, but then tripped up again with another missed cut after 36 holes at the Players Championship the next week.
Bear in mind that his slump in the middle of last year began right at that time, with his swing totally off track. This time around, he's swinging as well as he has when he dominated at the end of last season.
As ESPN's Justin Ray points out, the first round alone from last week's solid effort at the Wells Fargo Championship was extremely encouraging, noting that McIlroy's opening 67 was the first time he had broken par in six opening rounds on the Tour this year.
Justin Ray @JustinRayGC
Rory McIlroy opens with 67 (-5). In previous 5 opening rounds on @PGATOUR this year, he never broke par (combined +2).2013-5-2 21:49:27
McIlroy led the field at Quail Hollow in hitting 77.78 percent of greens in regulation, per CBS Sports. The problem was his putter. Though he's done so much to improve in that area since his rise to prominence, his flatstick let him down.
He's putted well enough and struck it well enough at times this year, but they haven't matched up often enough. McIlroy is currently fourth in GIR percentage on Tour and 19th in total putting. Such a combination would appear to lend itself to greatness.
What has really hurt McIlroy is his approach shots—particularly with shorter clubs. Between all the ranges from 50 to 150 yards from the stick, he ranks no better than 109th in proximity from the hole.
Despite a relatively diminutive frame compared to the likes of, say, Dustin Johnson, McIlroy can bomb it with the best of them. That doesn't matter if he can't capitalize from close range.
When not playing as frequently, the first shots to go are the ones that require the most feel. The closer to the hole one is, the more feel that's involved.
McIlroy seems to be in order on the longer shots, but it's what he does from 150 yards and in that will be key for him. Golden looks at the flagstick should be plentiful, and McIlroy should have wedges in his hands frequently throughout the week. The question is whether or not he can take advantage of those chances.
Making it to the weekend would be a victory in and of itself, but a player of McIlroy's caliber is destined to win sooner rather than later.
Don't be surprised if this is the week everything comes together because, excluding his maiden Tour victory, each win has been preceded by an event the previous week—and only once did he finish outside of the top-five on those occasions.
Ball-striking is paramount in the Players and, arguably, no one in the world right now is striking it like McIlroy.
Note: All statistics and information, unless otherwise indicated, are courtesy of PGATour.com.