By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Four birdies over his final six holes left Rory McIlroy feeling good about his game, but the ending was also bittersweet.
"I didn't play the par 5s particularly well," said McIlroy, who was a collective 4 under on them for the week but also 3 over on the ninth hole alone at TPC Sawgrass. "You play (No. 9) at level par and you're 10 under for the tournament and you're up there."
On the one hand, McIlroy made it to the weekend at THE PLAYERS Championship after missed cuts in his first three trips here. On the other, he struggled with his putter on the weekend and that took him out of contention.
McIlroy, who shot 2-under 70 on Sunday, missed eight putts from inside 10 feet over the last two days, including three in the final round.
He'd come into the week having made three adjustments to his putter, the most recent of which came this week with a little more loft to help him get the ball rolling on the Bermudagrass.
McIlroy says he'll stick with it, however, because the problem was his stroke more than the equipment. His putting coach, Dave Stockton, agrees. "He likes to forward press like I do," Stockton said. "I just felt like that would get him to roll the ball better, and he did for the first round. In terms of mechanics, we didn't change anything."
Said McIlroy: "I just didn't hole them. I struggled a little bit reading them, and I got a bit indecisive. Over the course of the week, if you keep seeing putts miss, it's hard to visualize them going in the hole when you're reading them, and that was sort of the problem this week."
Unlike past years, his strategy wasn't. McIlroy left the driver in the bag more often than in past trips here and the result led to his best week yet at TPC Sawgrass, where he finished at 7 under.
Not that he's grown any fonder of Pete Dye's signature course.
"I'm not sure I love any course," he said. "A golf course is a golf course, but there are still a few golf courses that I like more than this one."
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Only two players have a mathematical shot to catch Tiger Woods in the FedExCup standings but there could be a change at the top of the Official World Golf Ranking this week.
Of course, considering Woods is now tied with Sergio Garcia for the lead THE PLAYERS Championship at 10 under, all could be a moot point.
Woods currently has 1,740 FedExCup points -- which is 343 more than Brandt Snedeker and 535 ahead of Billy Horschel. The winner of THE PLAYERS gets 600 points.
McIlroy could regain the No. 1 spot in the world if he wins his first PLAYERS and Woods finishes 13th alone or lower. Mclroy shot 66 in the first round and tees off at 1:39 p.m. ET.
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Robert Castro opened with a course record-tying 63 to take a three-shot lead on Thursday. Whether he still has that lead by the time he tees off Friday afternoon, who knows. Conditions appear to be good for scoring again and already a few players -- Tiger Woods among them -- have started to make a move. Here's a look at who and what to watch for this afternoon.
Roberto Castro (12:46 p.m. ET): A big reason Castro was able to go so low in the opening round was because he hit close -- six of his approach shots were inside 5 feet. That will be a tall order come the afternoon when the wind is expected to increase along with the temperature, making for a firm, fast golf course.
Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler (1:18 p.m. ET): After failing to break 70 in 16 of his last 17 rounds, which included a pair of missed cuts and two other finishes near the bottom of the leaderboard, Mahan was "stress free" with a 67 Thursday. Given his accuracy, he should fare well here (two years ago, he finished sixth). Fowler, on the other hand, struggled to a 73 and will have some ground to make up to make the cut.
Keegan Bradley, Graeme McDowell (1:28 p.m. ET): Both were 2 under on Thursday, and McDowell comes into this week having recently won at another Pete Dye course (Harbour Town).
Zach Johnson (1:49 p.m. ET): Perhaps lost in all the headlines Thursday was Johnson, who was superb with seven birdies and just one bogey. Johnson has played progressively better here the last three years, finishing 32nd, 22nd, 12th and second.
Rory McIlroy, Steve Stricker, Adam Scott (1:49 p.m. ET): McIlroy finally broke par here with a sublime 66 in the opening round and he finally appears to be comfortable around this place. His last two wins have also come on Pete Dye courses. Stricker was nearly as good with a 67 and between the three the group made just two bogeys.
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It was golf’s version of H-O-R-S-E, and Rory McIlroy wouldn’t give up the tee box to Steve Stricker.
“Steve and I halved every hole for the first 11 holes,” McIlroy said. “We both birdied the exact same holes.”
They shot nearly identical scores, too -- McIlroy a 6-under 66 and Stricker a 67 in the opening round of THE PLAYERS Championship.
The third member of the group, 2004 PLAYERS champion, Adam Scott wasn’t too bad, either. He shot 69.
“I think when you get all three guys playing well in a group, you sort of feed off one another,” McIlroy said. “It was a good group to be a part of.”
It was a good round for McIlroy, too, beyond just the score.
In three previous trips here, McIlroy had never made the cut or broken par. Thursday, he made six birdies and no bogeys, turning in 31 after starting on the back nine.
If there was something that McIlroy, who just turned 24, learned in his previous appearances, it’s that he doesn’t need to hit driver often at TPC Sawgrass.
In the past, he would hit the big club on Nos. 2, 5, 7 and 9. And that was on just the front nine. “Maybe six or seven drivers last year,” McIlroy added.
Thursday, he didn’t any drivers on the front nine, and he hit just three overall (on Nos. 11, 14 and 16).
“There is no point,” he said. “The par‑5s on the front nine, for example, there is no point hitting driver off either one of those for me because I'm still going to reach the green with a 3‑wood off the tee if I want to.
“I'm playing nine as a three-shotter this week; I don't think I'll go for the green once. And the second hole I was still hitting iron in after hitting 3‑wood off the tee.”
The point McIlroy is making is that it is more important to keep his ball in the fairway.
“Once you do that,” he said. “The way I feel like I'm hitting my irons, I can take advantage of that.”
Everyone in the group did, too, with 16 birdies and just two bogeys between the three.
“I was a little surprised when I teed off that someone was 5 under already,” said Scott, playing for the first time since winning the Masters. “I thought it might play a little tougher than that. But it was ideal. There wasn't even a breath of wind hardly the front nine. The greens seemed pretty receptive, too, so if you were in the fairway you could attack.”
For McIlroy, a consistent swing has allowed him to do just that in recent weeks after struggling in the beginning of the season. In his last three starts, McIlroy has finished 10th, 25th and second.
“I'm definitely a lot more relaxed coming in here this year,” said McIlroy, who last two wins happen to come on Pete Dye-designed courses. “Whatever I do this week what I felt coming in is I'll do better than I ever have before. I feel like I've got the game to contend. I just wanted to go out and play well, and that's what I've done so far.”
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- If Rory McIlroy had to do this year over again, he would have played more tournaments at the beginning of the season: To get adjusted to his new equipment; to get adjusted to the suddenly larger-than-life spotlight he’s now in.
“I felt that if it felt good in practice, it would feel good on the course,” he said on the eve of THE PLAYERS Championship.
That wasn’t the case.
McIlroy missed the cut in his first start, got bounced in the first round of a match-play event in his second and walked off the golf course midway through his second round in the third.
Even though it took him longer than expected to adjust, McIlroy wasn’t focused on this year. He was looking at the next 20.
“Taking three months of that to make an adjustment or to change isn’t that big a time frame,” he said. “But I had to play tournament rounds.”
When he did, he eventually turned the corner.
McIlroy finished eighth at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, where he closed with a 65. The following month he finished second in San Antonio. And last week he was in contention at Quail Hollow before finishing 10th after a final-round 73.
“Just getting it done and then not having to do it ever again or go through stages, I'd rather have the process last three months than have it being drawn out over a year or 18 months,” McIlroy continued. “Just get it all done, and if you need to make any tweaks here and there, you do.”
Now he hopes to get something else done: Make the cut at THE PLAYERS Championship, something he has failed to do in three trips here.
Why has one of the game’s best ball-strikers struggled at a place that rewards such traits? The answer is less complicated than you might think.
“The first year I came here I was in Vegas the week before,” McIlroy deadpanned. “That didn't help."
“The second year was my 21st birthday. That didn't help."
“And last year I don't have an excuse. I just didn't play well.”
McIlroy’s last two wins, however, have both come on Pete Dye courses -- Kiawah Island for last year’s PGA Championship and at Crooked Stick a few weeks later in the BMW Championship.
TPC Sawgrass, however, is, in McIlroy’s words, “tricky.”
“It's just one of these courses where the best player who plays well that week will win,” McIlroy said. “It doesn't suit any type of game style. You've got to go out there and play the shots.”
Yes, Rory McIlroy is the No. 1 player on the PGA TOUR -- according to one statistic. (Lecka/Getty Images)
By Bill Cooney, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It's finally here, THE PLAYERS Championship. Before the first tee is planted in to the turf, let's take a look at some notable stats from Derek Ernst's victory last week at the Wells Fargo Championship and look ahead to this week's event at TPC Sawgrass. Some stats may surprise you -- Rory McIlroy's rank in one category and Tiger Woods' scoring history here to name a few.
.825 Strokes gained-putting average for Sergio Garcia, which ranks 10th on the PGA TOUR. … Garcia’s putting continues to improve from past seasons. Once his nemesis, the putter has arguably become a friend. Garcia ranked 26th last season, up from T144th in ’11 and T159 in ’10. In 2013, Garcia is picking up 3.300 strokes on the field average per week.
No. 1 Rory McIlroy’s all-around ranking. … That’s right. Despite all the fuss over equipment changes and seemingly mediocre play in 2013, McIlroy ranks No. 1 on TOUR in all-around, which is calculated by adding the rankings of a player in the following categories: Scoring Leaders, Putting Leaders, Eagle Leaders, Birdie Leaders, Sand Saves, Greens in Regulation, Driving Distance and Driving Accuracy. Click here to see the all-around rankings.
1 Number of players that have birdied the 17th hole in all four rounds at THE PLAYERS. … The only person to accomplish the feat is Paul Azinger in 1987. Azinger finished sixth in the tournament.
9 Number of balls Bob Tway has hit into the water at No. 17 during THE PLAYERS since 2003, which is the most on TOUR. … There were 39 water balls on the island 17th last season out of 423 attempts, or 9 percent. The highest percentage of water balls came in 2007, when players hit an amazing 93 balls in the water (21 percent). Click here for more water stats on No. 17.
28 Number of aces in tournament history, which includes 24 at TPC Sawgrass. … The last hole-in-one came in 2008 by Robert Garrigus on the 13th hole. The last ace at the 17th was by Miguel A. Jimenez in 2002.
63 Tournament 18-hole scoring record at THE PLAYERS Championship. … The mark is shared by Fred Couples (1992) and Greg Norman (‘94). Couples carded the 9-under round in the third round, which included an eagle on No. 9, bogey on No. 15 and birdies at 16 and 18. He went on to finish T13. Norman, meanwhile, shot a 63 in the first round with a nine-birdie performance on his way to victory.
164 Spots that Derek Ernst moved up in the FedExCup standings by winning the Wells Fargo Championship. ... When Ernst defeated David Lynn on the first playoff hole at rainy Quail Hollow Club on Sunday, he grabbed his first TOUR win -- which gave him a spot at THE PLAYERS this week. It also moved him up to No. 32 in the FedExCup standings, which is led by Woods.
71.35 Career stroke average for Tom Lehman at THE PLAYERS, which is the lowest among players with at least 25 rounds played. … Lehman, who has played 62 rounds, never won THE PLAYERS. His best finish is second twice, in 1998 and 2005. He also has six top 10s in 17 tries. Defending champion Matt Kuchar ranks second (71.36, 25), followed by Woods (71.44, 55). Woods has one victory and four top 10s in 15 attempts at TPC Sawgrass.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS ARCHIVE
Week 2: Sony Open/Humana Challenge
Week 10: WGC-Cadillac/Tampa Bay Championship
Week 12: Arnold Palmer/Shell Houston Open
Week 13: Shell Houston/Valero Texas Open
Week 14: Valero/The Masters
Week 15: The Masters/RBC Heritage
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Caroline Wozniacki made sure a birthday cake was delivered to her boyfriend Rory McIlroy. The tennis star gave him a bracelet and a couple of pairs of shoes, as well.
Several friends gave the young Northern Irishman, who turned 24 on Saturday, a powerstation for his iPhone because he uses it so much the battery drains quickly. But the best present he may have gotten didn't come wrapped with a bow.
That's because until Phil Mickelson and Nick Watney reached the challenging Green Mile at Quail Hollow on Saturday, McIlroy appeared destined to start the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship, a tournament he won in 2010, a distant five strokes off the pace.
Instead, the two leaders struggled on the closing stretch -- Mickelson following a double bogey with a bogey at the 16th hole and Watney shanking his tee shot on the way to a double at the 17th. Both had reached double digits under par, but will start the final round a 8 under, instead.
"I think they may have given me a little bit of a birthday present right there," said McIlroy, who shot a disappointing 73 in the third round. "I'm only three back heading into (Sunday), and that's as good as I could ask for."
McIlroy, who lost in a playoff at Quail Hollow last year, has been flawless tee-to-green this week -- ranking first in driving accuracy and greens in regulation. He's struggled on the greens, though, taking 29, 31 and 33 putts, respectively.
"When I got on the greens it was a problem," McIlroy acknowledged. "I gave myself a lot of chances out there for birdies and even some short par putts from 4 or 5 feet. I just couldn't hole anything (Saturday).
"I think when you miss a few putts on these greens, you sort of lose confidence in your stroke and then it's just sort of hard to commit fully to what you want to do. If I want to hole some putts tomorrow, I need to do a better job of that."
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- That second wake-up call came early for Rory McIlroy on Friday at the Wells Fargo Championship.
He had stepped to Quail Hollow's 10th tee at 7:30 a.m., ready for work at a time when many people are just getting out of bed. Three shots later, he was on the green, 16 feet away from a birdie and sole possession of the lead.
McIlroy took aim but the putt not only was off the mark, it slid 8 feet by the hole. The par putt stubbornly refused to fall, too.
"That was a nice little wake up call," McIlroy would later say with a wry grin. "Apart from that, I played well. I gave myself plenty of chances again, didn't hole as many putts as yesterday, but you're not going to hole every putt on these greens. So as long as I keep giving myself chances that is the most important thing."
McIlroy couldn't take advantage on his next seven holes, though. He broke that string of pars with a bogey at the 18th to fall back to 3 under for the tournament. But he stayed patient and righted the ship on the front nine once he got more comfortable with the speed of the greens, making birdie putts of 4, 7 and 6 feet before signing for a 71.
"The greens were a lot faster today than they happened to be yesterday afternoon," McIlroy said. "It took a little bit of time to get adjusted. But I think this week it's all about fairways and greens. If you can do that, not every putt's going to drop, but I think if you've given yourself the chances, you take a few of them and you'll be right there."
When the morning wave was finished, McIlroy was one shot off the lead held by Scott Gardiner. The 2010 winner of the Wells Fargo Championship, who lost a chance at a second title in a playoff last year, was tied with Lee Westwood, Rod Pampling and Jason Kokrak at 6 under.
For the second straight day, McIlroy hit 11 fairways and he managed one more green in regulation, 16, to be exact, in the second round so tee to green he's been extremely solid. He used 33 putts but capitalized when he could and even though he was 1 over on the par 5s, McIlroy couldn't be too disappointed.
"I think it shows how the rest of my game is that I'm still right there and still able to score," McIlroy said.
Rory McIlroy's bid for a second Wells Fargo title got off to a good start on Thursday. (Lecka/Getty Images)
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- All Rory McIlroy wanted to do was to keep making birdies.
Starting at the fifth hole on Thursday, he reeled off four in a row, then followed a bogey at No. 9 with two more. And wen he added everything up and put pencil to his scorecard, McIlroy had a 67 that left him tied for the lead -- again -- at the Wells Fargo Championship.
McIlroy was tied atop the leaderboard at the end of 72 holes at Quail Hollow last year but missed out on a second Wells Fargo Championship in three years when Rickie Fowler birdied the first playoff hole. Obviously, there's still plenty of golf to be played this week but McIlroy likes the way he's hitting the ball and the position he's in.
And why not? The talented young Northern Irishman hit 11 of 14 fairways and all but three greens in regulation to tie for third and ninth in those categories, respectively. He also used just 29 putts in making seven birdies, including a 10-footer on the 18th.
"I feel a lot more comfortable with my swing and a lot more comfortable with where my game is at, so that's always going to make it easier," McIlroy said. "But I love this golf course. I seem to play well around here, so that is also an added benefit."
McIlroy's birdie barrage began when he got up and down for birdie from the right side of the green at the par-5 fifth. He hit a 7-iron to 3 feet at the sixth hole, then two-putted No. 7 from 22 feet and tapped in from 20 inches at No. 8.
The 2010 champ at Quail Hollow missed the ninth green and couldn't make a 7-footer to save par. But he answered with a tap-in birdie at the par-5 10th and another from 9 feet at No. 11 before another pesky bogey halted that run. The 67 was McIlroy's fifth round in the 60s in 11 trips around the Tom Fazio redesign.
"I was hitting some good shots in there and leaving the ball quite close to the pins for the birdies, which is what you need to do out here," McIlroy said. " It's hard to hole on putts, but I played well. I gave myself plenty of chances and I'm really happy with the day."
McIlroy said he and his coach Michael Bannon spent last week in Florida working on a something they noticed at Augusta -- "It was only a tiny little thing but it's made a good difference," he said. McIlroy is feeling better and better about where his game is.
"I think it's big strides because my game wasn't where it should have been at all at the start of the year," he said. "Got into a couple of bad habits on my swing, and it just took me a little bit of time to get out of them. But now that I feel like I'm swinging it well, this is the sort of golf I expect to play."