McIlroy was expected not to play any practice ahead of the $10 million (€7m) event but surprised officials by teeing up mid-afternoon to play the inward nine on the Pete Dye-designed Stadium course layout.
McIlroy had spent the early part of this week practising at the exclusive Bears Club after sharing eighth place in last Sunday’s concluding Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte.
It was McIlroy’s seventh top-10 finish in 10 events this year but didn’t lead to huge celebrations later that night, despite it being the Down man’s 25th birthday. According to his manager, McIlroy had a quiet night with his fiancée Caroline Wozniacki and close friends Ricky McCormick and Mitchell Tweedie.
McIlroy is making his fifth straight Players appearance in an event loosely labelled ‘Golf’s Fifth Major’ but with his best result being eighth last year after three missed cuts.
In contrast, fellow Irishman Graeme McDowell will be looking to end a run of two missed cuts in his seventh appearance at the event, his best finish being 26th in 2010.
McDowell had spent a long time yesterday on the practice range working with coach, Pete Cowen, the pair celebrating a seven-year anniversary working together.
“We just sat down recently and looked over Graeme’s seven-year stats and I said to him that they proved what a great player he is,” said Cowen. “Sometimes Graeme doesn’t realise he is a ‘player’ and not a bomber, and I’ve been trying to get that through to him because he gets frustrated when he plays alongside other players who hit it 30 yards past him.
“And he sometimes forgets also he’s been a top-20 player for the last four years, and maintained that without winning another Major.
“But the thing about Graeme’s golf swing is that it’s funky but it is consistently funky, and it’s his own and he’s had it for as long as he’s been playing golf.
“And by ‘funky’ I mean his left wrist position is different to the norm, which is his own pattern. All I am trying to get him to do is take more control of that, so he plays to his strengths.”
McDowell will tee up at 8.18am local time (1.18pm Irish), with McIlroy out at 8.29am (1.29pm Irish).
Peter Unsworth, R&A’s Championship Committee chairman, will be at Royal Portrush today inspecting the course ahead of July’s British Amateur Championship but also casting an eye over the Antrim links gem ahead of a possible 2019 British Open move.