Rory McIlroy hasn't finished outside the top six in 2019 – but he didn't get over the line until The Players. And it didn't come easy, writes Mark Townsend
Such are the fine margins, both in sport and in our small-minded brains, that in the space of half an hour Rory McIlroy went from a supposed mental Sunday block to Mr Clutch.
There he was lined up against the wall with question marks being readied to fire at him over his Sunday failings – starting with the 70 on Saturday, the splash ball with a wedge at the 4th, a pushed putt from six feet five holes from home and an even bigger shove with the driver off the 15th tee.
Already in the negative column we had last year’s Masters, the Bridgestone, the Tour Championship and, as recently as last week and to a lesser extent, Bay Hill along with half a dozen other Sundays to be used against him.
From his last nine starts from the final group he was 0-9.
This is what we now talked about on almost a weekly basis; the new rules and Rory’s Sunday wobbles.
On the upside he wasn’t in the final pairing here at Sawgrass. He and Tommy Fleetwood both shot 70 from the last twoball on Saturday but, given Fleetwood had teed off first, he got the last slot with Jon Rahm. Instead, at 1.25pm local time, McIlroy was off with Jason Day.
Some four hours later he was staring down a drive at 15 that looked destined for some shrubbery that not many of us were even familiar with. This is what happened to McIlroy on Sundays these days – others, this time Jim Furyk, Eddie Pepperell and Jhonattan Vegas, would go one way, he would go the other.
And, while it might not be as destructive as plenty made out, it was always enough. Hawaii T4, Torrey Pines T5, Riviera T4, Mexico 2, Bay Hill T6.
Hand off the club… ‘fore right’. Plus ca change…
Moments later Furyk had tapped in for a 67 and 15-under total.
Everyone has an opinion on McIlroy’s caddie Harry Diamond, the only thing you could say with any certainty is that you don’t hear him comment on his friend and boss’ shots too often and definitely not in mid flight.
‘Some golf shot there…’
A 7-iron whipped left to right, from sand, round a tree resulted in a 15-foot putt, a quite pronounced fist pump and the start of a quite brilliant finish.
This is great theater.@McIlroyRory ties the lead again.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 17, 2019
The par-5 16th brought the exact same yardage, after a phenomenal drive, and McIlroy gave himself another birdie, this time with the luxury of two putts.
Whatever your lead the 17th is a brute but on a cold, grisly, gusty Sunday in March and, with a head full of the same questions as to your inadequacies, it’s bordering on feral.
There might have been a pair of 2s on Thursday and Friday but they count for nothing now. Same routine, same level of chat with Diamond, the arms go up, the ball comes down, and McIlroy is resting on his putter on the tee with part of the equation solved.
The mind might be whirring but it’s still working – keep eating, keep hydrated, keep loose, keep breathing, keep the flag in, keep things simple, keep moving – it’s nearly over.
When Rory’s not tight or inhibited or angry or flustered or injured things like the tee shot at the 18th happen and it’s a genuine thing of great beauty. It’s not just about the numbers – 277 yards carry, 108 feet apex, 178mph ball speed – or the ball flight or even the swing, it’s the potential.
15+ @PGATOUR victories including 4 majors before age 30 – since the 1st Masters was held in 1934:
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) March 17, 2019
He’s still only 29. It might seem like he’s been around forever and a day but the really good bits might still be to come.
Once upon a time he wasn’t a huge fan of Sawgrass, his first two visits resulted in missed cuts and he actually chose not to play here in 2011.
“I don’t like the golf course for a start,” he said back then. “It’s a Pete Dye course and I find it very awkward off the tee. You’re hitting across fairways all the time. It creates angles and visually it’s very tough off the tee.
“He makes you feel uncomfortable because it looks like you’ve only got a little bit of fairway to hit, but actually once you get up there it’s a little bit wider.”
Another two-day working week followed in 2012 and it was only on the Thursday the year after that he finally broke 70 for the first time.
Fast forward to now and McIlroy can laugh at his early forays to The Players.
“I came here as a 19-year-old in 2009, missing the cut and getting kicked out of bars in Jax Beach for being underage. So I’ve come a long way in those 10 years.”
At the start of this week the elephant in the room wasn’t his inability to play the course but what was going on in the final rounds? This time the question was saved until last, it had to be asked and, as always, McIlroy was as honest as always.
“I’d say the only Sunday I was really disappointed in this year was Kapalua, which is the first tournament of the year. Every other Sunday I’ve basically done what I’ve wanted to do.
“It’s a new week. That’s the great thing about golf. Once you wake up on Monday morning, it’s a fresh start. It’s a new tournament. It’s a new opportunity. That’s the nice thing about our game, which doesn’t happen in some other sports, and it’s nice to take advantage of that luxury.”
Spoken like a true pro. And your new favourite for the Masters.