Can Rory Repeat at The Players?

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA - MARCH 10: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland signs autographs during a practice round prior to The PLAYERS Championship on The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 10, 2020 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

McIlroy prepares for unprecedented Players title defence

By Chris Cox / PGA TOUR

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida – If the daunting history of The Players Championship was intended to unsettle Rory McIlroy, he seriously deflected those fears Tuesday afternoon.

So, a player has never defended his championship in all 45 chances at this PGA Tour flagship event? No worries for the Northern Irishman, who birdied two of the final four holes a year ago to finally win a title that had eluded him. McIlroy smiled that infectious smile and seemed to wrap his arms around the challenge.

“If there’s been no one to defend (since Jack Nicklaus first had the chance in 1975), it would be a nice time to start and have someone do that,” he said, laughing. “It is an opportunity, for sure. I don’t think you ever need an extra motivation when you come to this golf tournament, but to be the first one to defend here would be very cool.”

There are emphatic, and rich, changes since McIlroy was here a year ago – the purse is now U.S. $15 million and the winner’s share $2.7 million. But for the most part, this is a stop that has become one of the annual crown jewels on the professional golf landscape.

For starters, there is a 144-player field that is the deepest and best of the year. Adding more shine is a stage – TPC Sawgrass – that offers to fans and viewers a recognizable set of holes, including the island-green, par-3 17th, that is arguably the most iconic in all of golf, what with watery dangers everywhere and a finishing stretch that presents delectable birdie chances and perilous bogey threats.

Last year, McIlroy took advantage, with birdies at the par-4 15th and par-5 16th propelling him to a one-stroke victory.

But it’s not as if he hasn’t experienced the pitfalls at TPC Sawgrass. He missed the cut in each of his first three starts here and was an early departure in 2018, too, so McIlroy concedes the comfort factor has come slowly at this Pete Dye design. What has enveloped him easier is this notion that he could be considered a face of the PGA Tour, right there with Tiger Woods.

The reasons are plentiful. At 30, McIlroy has returned to lofty heights; he’s No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, his win at the World Golf Championship HSBC Champions last fall was his 18th in his still-young PGA TOUR career, and since that effort there have been five straight finishes in the top five. What’s more, there are great vibes to this year’s drive into TPC Sawgrass, given what happened a year ago.

Last March, McIlroy came here riding a stretch of good, if not victorious tournaments, frustrated yet optimistic. He shot 67-65-70-70 to hold off Jim Furyk by one. “This (tournament) last year was huge for me in terms of sort of getting the monkey off my back,” said McIlroy, who then added two more wins and earned the ultra-rich FedExCup championship.

All of which is why McIlroy had a wide smile on his face in Florida sunshine Tuesday.

“It’s nice to be back,” he said. “Obviously, it would be wonderful to replicate what happened last year.”

But no defender has been able to win this tournament in 45 tries? McIlroy isn’t flustered, and for good reasons. In just over 10 years as a pro, he’s already authored a Hall of Fame career and by all appearances, it’s just getting better.