Rory McIlroy didn’t break par until his fourth time at The Players Championship.
The next step is having a chance on Sunday.
The four-time major champion has learned to love the TPC Sawgrass — “learned to like,” he quickly clarified with a smile — and he has taken small steps toward contention. The Stadium Course has a history of not favoring any one style of play, and the list of winners at the PGA Tour’s premier event illustrates that, going from Greg Norman to Lee Janzen, from Tiger Woods to Craig Perks, from Henrik Stenson to Tim Clark.
“I felt like it handcuffed me,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I was just being stubborn, trying to hit driver where there’s no point in hitting drive. So I’ve learned to take it for what it is — a very positional golf course.”
Attitude is everything in golf, especially on this Pete Dye-designed course created on land that used to be a swamp.
McIlroy said he now looks forward to The Players Championship, even though he has yet to finish closer than four shots of the winner. Much of that has to do with the water, just not any found on the golf course.
“I started staying on the beach a few years ago, and that’s made the event a lot more enjoyable,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy is not alone in his struggles.
Jordan Spieth has gone the opposite direction. He nearly won the first time he played and didn’t even make a bogey until his 59th hole. He tied for fourth. And that was the last time he played on the weekend at Sawgrass.
“I just kind of assumed that it would come easy to me,” Spieth said.
Dustin Johnson has never finished better than a tie for 12th. That was last year, and he had to close with a 68 to finish that high. Even more remarkable for the No. 1 player in the world is that he has shot in the 60s just three times in 30 rounds.
It all starts to unfold Thursday, the final time The Players Championship will be held in May after a 12-year run before returning to the pre-Masters date in March.
The star attraction is Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson paired in the same group for the first time since the 2014 PGA Championship. This is only the second time they have played with each other on the Stadium Course. The other was the third round in 2001, when Woods holed a birdie putt from one end of the island green to the other on the par-3 17th and wound up winning the next day.
Woods has won twice at Sawgrass. He has never missed the cut. But he has been perplexed by the Stadium Course, just like so many others. He has finished out of the top 20 in just over half his appearances, some of those when he was the most dominant player in golf.
“There’s no way of faking it around this golf course,” said Woods, who won his first U.S. Amateur at Sawgrass in 1994. “The golf course negates a lot of different things. We’re all playing from basically the same spots off the tees with our approach shots.”
Mickelson has said of his 2007 victory, “I can’t believe I won here.”
The purse has been raised to $11 million, with the winner getting just under $2 million for a week’s work. The field is always among the strongest — last year, only the three full-field majors had a higher-rated field.
And while it has an All-Star roster of champions, equally impressive is the list of players who haven’t won. That includes the top five players in the world, all of whom have a mathematical chance to be No. 1 by the end of the week.
First, they have to figure out Sawgrass.
“It’s a golf course that can frustrate you,” McIlroy said. “I think that’s what Pete Dye does so well. He can frustrate you by the design of his golf courses, and you feel like you’re getting bad breaks, and that can get under your skin a little bit. … I think the mental side of golf is way more important than the physical. You can struggle with your swing and struggle with your putting, but if your mental side is on point, you’re going to have a chance to win every week.”
McIlroy has his own star group with Spieth and Justin Thomas, three players in their 20s who have combined for eight majors.
The forecast is for warm temperatures, which should translate into a firm, fast course.
“When it gets firm and fast, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “It’s the hardest par 72 we’ll play. … You have to just take what it gives you, and take you medicine when you get out of position.”