Friday, February 23, 2024

Rory McIlroy could use break before Masters: ‘very blah’

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Is Rory McIlroy overwhelmed and overexposed?

Those are fair questions to ask after his uncharacteristic flameout at The Players Championship this week, where he missed the cut by three shots and went home early on Saturday once the second round was completed.

It’s fair to wonder whether McIlroy has bitten off more than he can chew as the unofficial face of the PGA Tour in its ongoing battle with LIV Golf, the upstart Saudi-backed tour that has poached some of the world’s top players.

Whatever the reason, McIlroy didn’t look like the No. 3-ranked player in the world this week.

He didn’t look like the player who finished runner-up at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week at Bay Hill.

And he definitely didn’t look like a player who had been poised to regain the No. 1 world ranking if he had won this weekend on the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course he conquered with his 2019 Players victory.

“Just very blah,’’ is the way McIlroy described his game this week.

McIlroy has a lot on his plate — too much, some might speculate.

He not only has become the man on the front lines for the PGA Tour in its very public feud with LIV Golf, but also he has spearheaded the PGA Tour’s elite-player-friendly schedule that was just rolled out and has drawn the ire of the rank-and-file players.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays his shot from the fifth tee during the second round of The Players Championship.
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It has felt as if McIlroy has become a lieutenant of sorts to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, and that has turned some people off — both players and fans alike.

Though his form was good enough to lift him to a tie for second last week at Bay Hill, McIlroy looked several area codes away from his usual form this week. He was too often out of position from his opening round on and never recovered, never got hot.

Before departing the property on Saturday morning, presumably to head back home to South Florida, McIlroy said it is “fair’’ to wonder whether he has taken on too much and whether it’s having an adverse effect on his performance.

“I’d love to get back to being a golfer, yeah,’’ he said. “Look, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Honestly, it’s been a busy sort of six or eight months. But as I said at the start of the week, everything has sort of been announced now [about the new schedule] and the wheels have been put in motion, so it should obviously quiet down from here.’’

That’s a bit of a Pollyanna take, though, because McIlroy has made himself into a lightning rod of sorts.

LIV Golf isn’t going away anytime soon, and he has found himself in a public spitting match with its CEO, Greg Norman. The controversy and unrest resulting from the new PGA Tour schedule, which has rankled many of the rank-and-file members, is also not going away and more complaints are sure to surface.

Rory McIlroy poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after his one-stroke victory during the final round of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in 2014.
Rory McIlroy poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after his one-stroke victory during the final round of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in 2014.
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McIlroy is a wonderful ambassador for the sport. He’s accountable, transparent and thoughtful. There’s no doubt, however, that as well as he has continued to play, including jockeying into position for the No. 1 world ranking, not having won a major championship since 2014 is wearing on him.

His added responsibility as the face of the PGA Tour cannot be helping his stress level.

“It’s just the time management,’’ he said. “The golf out here, that’s fine, but it’s just more the time at home to make sure you’re getting prepared, to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to be ready once you show up to these weeks. That’s where I’ve maybe sacrificed a little bit of time with some of this other stuff. I’m ready to get back to being purely a golfer.’’

McIlroy’s No. 1 goal at the moment is preparing himself for the Masters from April 6-9. The green jacket is the missing piece for McIlroy to complete a career grand slam: He won the 2011 U.S. Open, the 2012 PGA Championship, the 2014 British Open and the 2014 PGA.

McIlroy said he plans to go to Augusta for some practice rounds next week. The only tournament he said he plans to play in before the Masters is the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play from March 22-26.

As he readies to tee it up again, though, thee is some concern that his driving, which had been the super power that separated him from the rest, has been spotty of late.

McIlroy, though, insisted it’s “not’’ a concern, pointing to the fact that the Augusta fairways are generously wide compared to those at Sawgrass.

“You just have to be really on to play well here,’’ McIlroy said. “If you’re a little off, it definitely magnifies where you are off. It’s a bit of an enigma. It’s just a tricky golf course, and you don’t hit fairways and you’ve got your work cut out for you.

“There’s a little bit more room off the tee [at Augusta].’’

Maybe McIlroy needs a little more rest and some time out of the spotlight before the Masters.

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