PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It doesn’t matter that Rory McIlroy has been winless for nearly a year.
Every week seems like his week.
That’s been the case all season and it’s especially true on days like Thursday at TPC Sawgrass.
McIlroy shot 5-under 67 in a bogey-free opening round at The Players Championship. An even-par 72 on a disappointing Sunday at Bay Hill was quickly forgotten while watching him smoke drivers off the tee just south of Jacksonville Beach.
His recent run of close calls amid six consecutive top-6 finishes is viewed in new light – disappointment fades but results never lie, and the truth is that McIlroy is playing his tail off.
That much was abundantly clear as he walked off the course two shots behind leader Tommy Fleetwood, another round in the mid-60s and another week right there for the taking.
“That’s the great thing about golf,” McIlroy said. “Once you wake up on Monday morning, it’s a fresh start. It’s a new tournament. It’s a new opportunity. That’s the nice thing about our game, which doesn’t happen in some other sports. It’s nice to take advantage of that luxury.”
The Irishman also took advantage of a gettable Stadium Course in ideal conditions playing with Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar. The Sunday shortcomings have done nothing to diminish McIlroy’s strut as he walks toward his golf ball in the fairway, usually lying a first down or two beyond his playing partners’.
McIlroy hit 10 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens, and he missed a chance at a closing birdie thanks in part to a bad break at the par-5 ninth. His approach shot from 238 yards took a huge bounce off a sprinkler head or similar obstruction and sailed beyond the green, leaving a tricky up-and-down.
He chipped to 11 feet, but the birdie try lipped out. Another close call.
Giving the fans on 17 a reason to cheer.
Birdie-birdie-birdie for this @PGATOURLIVE group.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 14, 2019
“It’s just reads here and there, or the speed might be just slightly off,” McIlroy said. “But most of the putts I’ve hit over the last few months have been mostly good putts. I’ve worked hard on making sure that I can aim the putter correctly and that I can start it on line, and then the only two things you have to worry about after that is your read and your speed.”
Kuchar narrowly missed his birdie putt at No. 9 to shoot 3-under 69, and the veteran who recently broke a four-year winless drought with a pair of victories knows McIlroy has been knocking on the door for some time.
“It certainly happens where you get on good form, and those guys are dangerous,” Kuchar said. “They build up and build up … you figure at some point they’ll break through. I certainly have had runs where you kind of have a nice finish and a top 10, and then you contend, and the next week you feel like it’s your week.”
The man two shots ahead of McIlroy fits the same bill. Fleetwood shot 65 to take the lead early Thursday afternoon on the heels of a T-3 finish at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. A five-time winner in Europe, Fleetwood now has 12 top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour and is again in contention for his first U.S. victory.
“It’s clearly the next step for me to win over here, but winning is not easy,” Fleetwood said. “I’ve just got to keep plugging away, keep doing the right things and focus on myself. Hopefully that will come … Everybody’s career goes in those stages, and hopefully mine will be the same.”
McIlroy has been through the stages with 14 Tour wins, three legs of the career grand slam and 12 months of near-misses. He isn’t winning at TPC Sawgrass, but every tournament still seems like his to lose.