If Rory McIlroy and his newly minted Nike team had a blueprint for the first half of the 2013 season, it’s safe to say that plan sits somewhere in a scrapheap marked “contaminated,” as the world's former No. 1 player looks for a fresh start on the opening day of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
Fresh off his triumph in the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island this past August, McIlroy had everything going for him. He was ranked No. 1 in the world, was poised to sign a $200 million deal with Nike and was the most recognizable face in golf this side of Tiger Woods.
Fast forward to the start of this week’s Players, McIlroy is now looking up at the previously mentioned Woods in the world rankings, is struggling with those million-dollar swoosh clubs and golf balls, and appears to have lost some of the brash confidence that belied his age while he was winning majors the past two years.
In fact, the closest McIlroy has been to matching Woods this year has been as a co-star in the Nike commercials the two have appeared in together during the past five months.
While the talent in those ads has been equal, there’s been no comparison between the two on the links. Tiger has soared back to the top on the wings of three 2013 victories while McIlroy has slipped to second fiddle under the weight of an inopportune anchor of equipment changes and consistency issues.
To be fair, Rory has a trio of top-10 finishes in 2013, but only his second-place showing at the Valero Texas Open against a less-than-stellar field even hinted at victory.
Meanwhile, Woods has surged past him with triumphs in three top-tier events—the Farmers Insurance Open, Cadillac Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational—all before the calendar turned to April. At the Masters a month ago, Woods again bested Rory with his gutsy fourth-place showing. McIlroy finished tied for 25th.
So now comes The Players Championship, the second-biggest tournament of the year to date and likely the most important this side of the four majors in all of 2013. It’s an opportunity for McIlroy to flip the switch just inside the shadow of the U.S. Open, and at the same time turn the momentum Tiger has forged since the season teed off.
The problem is, as talented as McIlroy is and as determined as he might be for a return to his major-winning form, the Stadium Course really isn't a venue he would choose as the launching pad for his surge past Woods.
In his three Players Championship starts, McIlroy has never made the cut and lacks a single sub-par round on the Stadium Course.
For his part, Woods hasn't found the Stadium Course sledding all that much easier. Tiger did win The Players in 2001, but has truly challenged only one other time as the Stadium Course’s tricky layout and difficult greens have befuddled the world’s top-ranked player more often than not.
But bettering Tiger isn't the end game for McIlroy this week. To get his 2012 momentum back, confidence and all, the Irishman needs a victory at TPC Sawgrass, or at the very least a legitimate run at it.
For that to happen, Rory is going to have to find his short game, especially his putting touch, which he seems to have left back at The Ocean Course in the wake of his PGA Championship celebration.
McIlroy ranks just 80th in strokes gained-putting, despite being fourth in greens in regulation, which means the opportunities have been there but the flat stick isn't allowing him to take advantage.
Those struggles were on display in last week’s Wells Fargo as McIlroy missed several short putts to the left side of the hole while his game got stuck in neutral over the weekend after a promising start of five-under Thursday.
There is also some work to do off the tee, where Rory ranks sixth in driving distance but has slipped to a less-than-attractive 118th in the accuracy department.
If anyone remembers Tiger’s switch to Nike weapons, McIlroy’s struggles might seem quite familiar. That’s the bad news. The good news is once Woods got used to his new clubs and, of course, a swing change, he enjoyed the best years of his career playing Nike.
That’s both the silver lining Rory is holding on to and the end game he is striving toward as he tees it up Thursday at TPC Sawgrass. At the age of 23 there’s obviously no urgency or desperation to the matter. That said, McIlroy wants to win and certainly is eager to regain his position as the world’s best player.
Rory knows all too well that he is going to have to do a lot more of the former in order to accomplish the latter while getting his career back on track after a slight detour in the wrong direction.