No one was more shocked than Paul McGinley in seeing Rory McIlroy slump to seven-over after just nine holes on day one in the defence of his Players Championship crown. McIlroy then left even his most ardent supporters in disbelief after an eventual seven-over par 79 on the TPC Sawgrass course at Ponte Vedra, Florida.
If the cancellation of last year’s flagship PGA Tour event was golf’s ‘Black Friday’, what we witnessed from McIlroy was his ‘Black Thursday’. McIlroy was already 14 shots behind playing partner, Sergio Garcia, with the Masters champion taking the early clubhouse lead with a seven-under 65. Lee Westwood, runner-up in Arnie’s event five days ago, grabbed five birdies in a three-under par 69.
The last occasion that McIlroy was anywhere near nine-over was posting an eight-over 80 for 18 holes on day one of the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills on New York’s Long Island.
“I think for Rory it is a question of motivation more than anything,” said McGinley. “He’s always been an inspirational player and he’s clearly passionate about what he’s doing but he looks to be very down on his golf at the moment.
“Whatever it is, I don’t know. He’s fallen outside of the top-10 on the world rankings. The passion and ‘get out of my way, here I come’ attitude that we used to see, in a normal McIlroy we just don’t see to be there at the moment.
“He’s totally down on his game and for a guy so talented, it’s unlike him. Rory spoke last week that there’s no spark and there is no spark, motivation or that passion, what we’re seeing at the moment in Bryson DeChambeau is missing.
“That’s what I see missing more than anything else and that spark, that motivation and that passion has to be re-established more than anything else as it’s such a big part of the make-up that Rory McIlroy is.”
McIlroy was in the sixth group off the 10th tee at 7.40am local time in what was a glorious morning but the sight of the now World No. 11 with his left arm out-stretched was not a good sign. McIlroy immediately called for a second ball before walking off with a double-bogey ‘6’. He then bogeyed the 13th hole or the fourth of his round to now be three-over after just four holes.
It only got worse, with McIlroy sending two balls into the water down the left of 18 and eventually three-putting for a quadruple bogey ‘8’ and 43 blows to be seven-over par to the turn. To his credit, unlike many others, McIlroy spoke after his round, responding when asked how difficult will it be for him to now recover from seven-over par.
“Very hard, especially when you’re trying to figure it out as you go along on course,” he said.
“You’re trying to figure it out but you still know you’re not really sure where the shots are coming from and then it’s sort of as I said earlier in the week, it’s hard to at least to try to eliminate one side of the golf course, basically.
“The big number on the 18th didn’t help after doubling the 10th or my first wasn’t helpful either. So yeah, I just think it’s hard to recover when you just haven’t played good. I mean, regardless if you take that 18th hole out, it still wasn’t a very good day.”
Graeme McDowell, also out in the early half of the draw, signed for a 73 that included a lone birdie and two bogeys, with McDowell somewhat sympathetic for his fellow Northern Irishman
“They always call this golf course a little bit of a superstar killer, right? I feel like this golf course has that reputation, right, where the best players in the world can come here — it kind of had Rory’s number for a lot of years,” said McDowell.
It didn’t have his number in 2019 but the defending champion looks a long way from the player who won at TPC Sawgrass two years ago.
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