Ponte Vedra Beach: Rory McIlroy won two major championships at age 23. He was the youngest player since Tiger Woods to reach No. 1 in the world. He was won the money titles on the PGA Tour and European Tour in the same season. Now if he can just break par on the TPC at Sawgrass. Or at least make it to the weekend.
McIlroy keeps showing signs that his game his emerging from an early season slump. His next stop is Thursday in The Players Championship, a tournament that hasn't been kind to him in his three previous trips. He has missed the cut every time, never posting a score better than 72.
So what's the problem? "The first year I came here, I was in Vegas the week before. That didn't help," McIlroy said with a boyish smile. "The second year was my 21st birthday. That didn't help."
And last year? "I don't have an excuse," he said.
Upon leaving last year, he said his career was young and he would have another 20 years, hopefully, playing this tournament. And if didn't get the hang of it by then, something would be wrong. He's still learning, though a few holes in his practice round Wednesday also showed he was picking up some of the nuances.
McIlroy was perplexed while playing the sixth hole Wednesday. He hit two shots off the tee, one in the fairway and one in the rough, about the same distance. He hit an iron with the ball in the fairway, pin-high about 15 feet left of the flag. He used the same club from the rough and watched it sail over the green. That's the trouble with this rough. It's not very high, and the ball can jump out of there.
As he played the par-5 ninth, caddie J.P. Fitzgerald reminded him that it's best to lay up on the hole. McIlroy smashed his tee shot and his caddie told him, "You have 266 (yards) to the front. Perfect 5-iron." McIlroy followed his instructions, hit the shot and then threw down another ball and asked for the 3-wood.
He missed to the right of the green, shrugged and said, "Just wanted to get it out of my system." In discussing the course, McIlroy is coming to the same conclusion. It's OK to be aggressive, as long as he picks the right spots.
"I think you've got to find a balance around here of being conservative, but also you have to take on things, as well," he said. "There is no point in not hitting the driver anywhere around here because you're not going to make enough birdies to contend, but you don't want to be hitting driver everywhere either because you're going to find trouble. So you have to find a balance. There are a few holes out here that you can take advantage of, and you have to because there are so many difficult holes out here that you sort of play for par and if you make birdie, it's a bonus."
NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said players have to "tippy-toe" their way around the golf course. Masters champion Adam Scott, meanwhile, is still floating. Scott has virtually disappeared since holing that 12-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole to become the first Australian to win the Masters. He was in New York for a couple of days and then headed to the Bahamas, where he has a home.
He usually takes a few weeks off after a major to decompress. This time, he waited an extra week before picking up a club. It felt that good.
"I've had a really nice break since the Masters, which I had planned anyway," Scott said Wednesday. "But it was even better because I was floating around on the clouds the last three weeks. It's been an overwhelming time for me."
Once he finally put a club back in his hands, the swing felt as pure as that final round at Augusta. He was eager to compete again, and The Players Championship is enough to get any pro's attention. It features the strongest and deepest field in golf all year, on a Stadium Course that had can be challenging, frustrating, punishing and rarely dull. Scott won The Players in 2004 after hitting 5-iron into the water on the 18th and making a 10-foot bogey putt to win by a shot.
"It's a nice week for me to come back to Sawgrass and The Players, because I've had such a great run here over the years," Scott said. "I'm excited about playing this week. I hopefully can take my head out of the clouds and come back down to earth and play some good golf."
That would be the only way to make it around this golf course. Woods and Phil Mickelson, the best two players of their generation, each have one win at the home of the PGA Tour. The list of winners ranges from power players such as Greg Norman and Davis Love III to pea shooters in the mold of Fred Funk and Tim Clark.
McIlroy and Graeme McDowell last won in America on courses designed by Pete Dye: McIlroy at the PGA Championship (Kiawah Island) and BMW Championship (Crooked Stick); McDowell at Hilton Head a couple of weeks ago.
"I think Pete Dye designed a certain type of golf course," McDowell said. "He likes to penalize the player in his own kind of unique way, and this golf course certainly has its dangers. But it's certainly scorable at the same time." McIlroy is still trying to discover that secret.