Rory McIlroy came into the 2014 Players Championship beginning on Thursday with three top-10 finishes in as many previous starts. A tie for eighth at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, last year, combined with his recent form, was enough to make McIlroy a favorite to win this week.
Those strong results didn't have the Northern Irish superstar all too pleased with his efforts before this tournament got underway, though, per Golf Channel's Randall Mell:
Rory McIlroy on what looks like his 3rd straight top 10: "It's fine, whatever. You want wins. I don't want to backdoor top 10 it every wk."— Randall Mell (@RandallMellGC) May 4, 2014
McIlroy was listed as a 12-1 Players Championship favorite on OddsShark.com, and got off to a solid but not spectacular, up-and-down start in Round 1.
Check out the leaderboard below to see how McIlroy stands throughout golf's "fifth" major:
Here is a look at McIlroy's first-round scorecard, as he began his day on the Stadium Course's back nine with two birdies en route to a two-under 70:
Read on for more details on how McIlroy fares for each day of the Players Championship as he seeks to get back into the PGA Tour winner's circle for the first time since the 2012 FedEx Cup playoffs.
McIlroy saved his best for last.
He continued to struggle with the opening six holes of TPC Sawgrass, playing them at even par on Sunday, but he recovered quickly and posted some low numbers after.
A brilliant 26-foot birdie putt found its mark on the par-three eighth hole, getting him into the red for the day and helping him finish the front nine at one under par.
Here's a look at his putt:
McIlroy help him momentum going as he made the turn.
Beginning on the par-four 10th, he rolled in another long birdie putt—this one from 28 feet in a collection area just off the green—which began a three-hole birdie streak.
Take a look at his putt here:
After going one over through the next three holes, McIlroy finished the Players Championship in brilliant fashion—with three-straight birdies over the course's final three holes.
The Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman tweeted her thoughts on McIlroy's prowess on this portion of the course:
Rory McIlroy birdies 16,17 & 18 in last 2 rds for back door top 10 at Players. Nice rally for a guy who shot 42 on front yesterday— Kelly Tilghman (@KellyTilghmanGC) May 11, 2014
His back-nine 31 completed a round of 66 on the day and way enough to propel him into the top 10.
It was night and day for McIlroy between the front nine and back nine this week. PGA Tour's Twitter account noted the statistics:
Rory McIlroy played the front nine +8 and the back nine in 17 under this week. At -9, he's in a tie for sixth. #PGATOUR— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 11, 2014
This fine finish from McIlroy certainly bodes well for his upcoming tournaments if he can keep this high level of play and great momentum going.
The first six holes again challenged McIlroy on Saturday, but he recovered to shoot his final round of the tournament, a three-under 69 that moved him up the leaderboard and gave him a chance to finish closer to the leaders seemed possible coming into the weekend.
McIlroy bogeyed Nos. 1 and 6 and double-bogeyed No. 4, but he was on point after that, with birdies on Nos. 7, 8, 10, 11, 16, 17 and 18. It was a familiar them at the tournament for McIlroy, as Shane Bacon of Yahoo! Sports tweeted:
Rory McIlroy is 9-over on the front this week at Sawgrass. 12-under on the back. Should probably just play the back twice on Sunday.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) May 10, 2014
At this point, it's hard to know how McIlroy will play on Sunday. He was solid for much of Thursday and Saturday, absolutely dreadful on the front Friday and solid again on the back. Really, if you take away Friday's hiccup on the first seven holes, he's played fairly well.
But can he avoid falling into another rut on Sunday? That will be the major storyline to follow as he looks to continue moving up the leaderboard.
Most of us love Fridays. McIlroy, well, not so much.
McIlroy's solid start was essentially flushed down the toilet on Friday, as he shot a disappointing 74 and nearly didn't make the cut. Despite shooting par on the first two holes, he seemed to fall apart on No. 3, as he bogeyed Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 7 and double-bogeyed No. 6, suddenly going four-over par before he even got to the back nine.
His struggles on Friday have become a theme of his season, and one he addressed after his poor round via Derek Lawrenson of the Daily Mail:
"I don’t know what’s happening on Fridays," said McIlroy. "It’s like I don’t want to play on that day. But I’m proud of the way I battled back. It’s not where I want to be but at least I am around for the weekend."
McIlroy did indeed battle back, finishing the round without another bogey that included birdies on No. 12, 13, 16 and 18. The birdie on 18 was particularly huge—had he simply parred the hole, he would have missed the cut altogether.
Another Friday, another poor round for McIlroy. Heading into the weekend, he once again found himself behind the eight ball.
The hot start suggested that McIlroy was in for something truly special, but a few hiccups and a streaky putter prevented him from posting a lower number than 70.
One positive takeaway from the round is that McIlroy hit an exceptional 12 of 14 fairways. However, he didn't quite capitalize on those ideal positions off the tee as often as he should have, finding 12 of 18 greens in regulation.
Momentum came early in the form of birdies at Nos. 10 and 11, only to be set back for a time with a bogey at the par-four 12th. But as he has time and again amid adversity, McIlroy bounced back and took advantage of his power off the tee to birdie the par-five 16th hole.
After navigating the intimidating par three with the famous island green thereafter, he capped off The Gauntlet with a birdie at the 18th, putting him just two shots off the pace at the time:
That allowed McIlroy to start the front nine at 33, then get to as low as five under with two birdies immediately after the turn.
Will Gray of Golf Channel noted how favorable scoring conditions were early in the day, and how world-class players, including McIlroy's playing competitor Justin Rose, were the beneficiaries thanks to brilliant execution:
Some big names taking advantage of calm conditions this AM. Rory, Rose, Sergio, Zach all -4, Westwood now has a share of the lead at -5.— Will Gray (@WillGrayGC) May 8, 2014
Golf Central's official Twitter account noted how the back nine was yielding record-low scores:
Just as he did on his front side, McIlroy gave a stroke back on the third hole of the set, then bogeyed the par-four sixth after his tee shot found the fairway bunker.
The long par-three eighth hole landed McIlroy in the beach again, and his par putt burned the edge on the high side to sag him back to two under for the round. He was able to position himself properly on his last hole of the day, setting up a 60-yard wedge approach to the par-five No. 9 that he hit rather close.
Unfortunately, the slick right-to-left birdie putt from 10 feet went begging to the left. A frustrated McIlroy tapped in for 70.
This statistic from ESPN's Justin Ray seems to indicate that a win may not be in the cards for McIlroy:
6 of last 7 @THEPLAYERSChamp winners shot 68 or better in 1st round. Notables -4/better at moment: Westwood, Rory, Rose, Sergio.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) May 8, 2014
It was a mixed bag of six birdies and four bogeys, which highlights the promise but also the shortcomings McIlroy has flashed this season. He must figure out his short game if he wants to be a legitimate factor on the weekend.
But using Ray's stat as context, asserting that McIlroy shot his way out of the tournament Thursday is ridiculous. There are still 54 holes left for him to make up ground. Given that he opened the 2013 Players with a 66 and dropped a third-round 65 at last week's Wells Fargo Championship, there's reason to believe McIlroy can get back into the hunt in Round 2 and beyond.
Few players boast McIlroy's knack for notching par breakers, though, and the key for him will be to do a better job of scrambling around the greens and getting those par-saving putts to keep himself closer to contention than he has in recent events.