On Monday, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood conducted a clinic at The Players Championship for more than 100 youngsters from local chapters of The First Tee and PGA Junior League.
McIlroy told them that when he was their age, he associated success with owning a fancy Lamborghini car. But not anymore. He advised the kids that he measured success in other ways, including being a good husband and son.
Much the same could be said of the way he measures his success as a golfer. McIlroy has now gone more than 12 months since his last victory at the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational, but he continues to preach patience and says he is quite pleased with his current run of five consecutive top-six finishes.
Now McIlroy is poised to be in the trophy hunt yet again after firing a bogey-free five-under 67 in the opening round of The Players. He trails Fleetwood by two strokes after the Englishman shot 65 and Korea’s Ben An and American Brian Harman, who both shot 66.
“I’m comfortable in my game,” said McIlroy. “Just a continuation of what I’ve tried to do all year.”
As McIlroy keeps piling up strong finishes but failing to hoist trophies, his critics have come with knives, especially when he’s faltered playing in the final group as he did Sunday at Bay Hill in Orlando. Fellow Irishman Seamus Power just laughs at the scrutiny McIlroy has faced.
“I saw an article — I didn’t even read it because I saw the headline, ‘What’s wrong with Rory?’ I just shook my head,” said Power.
“He’s such a talent that I think people expect him to win all the time, but winning is hard. Everything has to go your way. You can’t control Francesco Molinari shooting 64 in the final round at Bay Hill and blowing the field away. To me, it’s just the opposite. When Rory does get the breaks he’s going to win a lot.”
World number two Justin Rose can understand this strange juxtaposition, where anything less than victory is judged as a disappointment.
“When he wins it looks so easy that you think: ‘Why aren’t you doing this week in, week out?’ ” Rose said.
Patience is a virtue that McIlroy hasn’t always had in large supply, but he is proud of his new-found consistency and is confident his best golf is still to come.
“You know the golf is in there,” he said. “It’s just letting that golf come out when it matters most.”
And when it does, it could be the start of another epic McIlroy run. The prevailing notion has been that a balky putter has held McIlroy back from winning a Major since 2014, but NBC golf commentator Paul Azinger highlighted a concern that deserves greater attention.
“I think he makes a lot of undisciplined decisions,” Azinger said. “Like driving in the bunker on 8 last week (at Bay Hill) and then hitting it in the water in Mexico City (during the WGC) a couple of times there on the 6th hole... Between him and his caddie, they have to be better because it’s a very thin line between Rory and domination.”
The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass ranks among the courses that have given McIlroy the most fits. He missed the cut here in each of his first three starts and headed home early again last year. Count McIlroy among the pros that favour the championship date change from May to March this season. Soft conditions and receptive greens allowed him to bully the course into submission with his length in a way that backfired when the course played firm, fast and bouncy.
“It lends itself to more aggressive play,” he said.
McIlroy noted he bashed more drivers off the tee at holes such as No 4, where he previously didn’t even consider it. Starting on the back nine, he made birdies on two of the par 5s — numbers 11 and 2 — smashed a 4-wood over the green at the 317-yard 12th and made a short birdie putt, and stuck his tee shot at the par-3 17th to nine feet and rolled in the birdie putt.
It was a stress-free start for McIlroy, and yet the question will linger if he can close on Sunday — until he does so.
While Azinger and other observers raise concerns that McIlroy is stacking up disappointments, and that the longer it goes, the more difficult it is to maintain confidence, McIlroy continues to take the glass-half-full approach that this week presents a new opportunity.
“That’s the great thing about golf,” said McIlroy. “Once you wake up on Monday morning, it’s a fresh start. It’s a new tournament.”
After one round at The Players, it looks like opportunity may knock again.