Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia try to shake off rust at The Players

Sergio Garcia-The Players-PGA Tour Peter Casey/USA TODAY Sports

Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia try to shake off rust at The Players

PGA Tour

Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia try to shake off rust at The Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Competitors finish rounds at The Players and face more post-round stops than a New York subway train, being shuttled through a rinse cycle of television, radio and print interviews. Rory McIlroy seemed on the edge of being annoyed when he saw he had to wait to get inside the Sky Sports TV booth, and then he peered around the corner to see who was holding him up.

Big grin. It was his old pal, Sergio Garcia.

When Sergio went to exit and McIlroy moved in, the two hugged, then looked at each other to find out where they stood at the midway point of The Players. “Even,” Sergio said. “Even,” came Rory’s retort.

“Yeah,” Sergio said laughing, “it’s you, me and Kooch.”

Garcia and McIlroy might as well be on the same number, because this week at the Stadium Course, they have faced a similar challenge: How do you climb back into competitive golf on a demandingly rugged course after a long layoff?

Post-Masters layoff ‘difficult’ for Garcia

“I’m not going to lie, it’s been difficult,” said Garcia, who sits at even par after a second-round 71. (McIlroy would shoot the same.) “I felt like I fought hard that last two days after a terrible start (40 on his first nine), and it’s a shame, because today, even without playing amazing, I felt I could have shot 3, 4 under par and that would have been really, really good.

“Unfortunately, I let a couple slip away there towards the end, but I played well the last two holes with the pressure of making sure that I didn’t do anything stupid so I could be here on the weekend.”

Garcia won the Masters on April 9, then shut it down for a couple of weeks before starting preparations for this week, staged on a golf course where he has had some nice success (he won the event in 2008).

For the second consecutive day, fortune smiled on Garcia at the island 17th. On Thursday, he aced the hole; Friday, with the hole playing much longer (148 yards), the hole cut at the back of the green, he tried to muscle a wedge to the top of the ridge, a shot of roughly 138 yards. The wind was blowing left to right, and a little at him, and a club he usually hits 140 yards came up woefully short, bounding on one of Pete Dye’s railroad ties fronting the green. But the ball kicked forward, making it onto the green.

I think the golf gods love him,” said PGA Tour Live announcer John Maginnes, who was calling the hole. “It just took them a decade and a half.”

Rory McIlroy-Sergio Garcia-The Players

Rory McIlroy has been nagged by pain in a joint in his back. (Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports)

Garcia was elated to two-putt from 45 feet and make off with a par. A lot of other players were not so lucky on Friday.

“That hole has been good to me a lot of times,” Garcia said, “but this week it’s been very good.”

McIlroy, who tied for seventh at the Masters and cried tears of joy when Garcia won, hasn’t played since Augusta, either. He got married in Ireland between then and now, and also did some extensive equipment testing, announcing a new multi-year deal with TaylorMade .

This week, he has been slowed by the recurrence of a nagging injury in a joint in his back, reaching behind to the bottom of his lower-left shoulder blade to show where he feels the twinge.

McIlroy’s back pain returns

In January, after losing the BMW South African Open in a playoff, it was discovered he’d fractured the fourth, fifth and sixth ribs along the left side of his torso, forcing him to the sideline. But if that were registering at an “8 or 9,” in terms of pain, soreness and stiffness, this time he said the pain is closer to “4 or 5.” One thing he could not do on Friday was hit any sort of cut shot. He tried on the first hole (his 10th of the day), and his ball went left. It was the last cut he tried to hit.

McIlroy might have overdone it in his return when he hit balls for “four to five hours” on Friday and Saturday. He was sore when he woke up on Sunday. He said he plans to get an MRI on Monday when he lands in Belfast (his next planned start on the PGA Tour is at Memorial), and for now, he’s getting daily treatment. He was only able to hit about 25 balls before his round. But he hopes he feels healthy enough to go out early on Saturday and post a good number, trying to get somewhere in the mix for Sunday’s final round.

“Maybe I should have just taken it a bit easier over the weekend,” he said, “but I was excited to get back, excited to play again.”

As was Garcia, who is adjusting to his new position as a major winner. There are demands that accompany the accomplishment. After chasing such greatness for the better part of two decades, it may take a little time. Certainly two rounds wasn’t enough.

“With all due respect,” Garcia said, “you don’t win a major every day. It’s a new experience for me. It’s been overwhelming, but at the same time, I need to get back to the way I was feeling, the way I was swinging, at the Masters.”

At least he and McIlroy have the weekend to work out some things.

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