OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – Rory McIlroy started the 2016 FedEx Cup Playoffs ranked 36th on the points list, got hot at the right time and won both the Deutsche Bank Championship and Tour Championship en route to clinching the FedEx Cup title.
This season, as the Northern Trust began Thursday morning, the 28-year-old, who is still getting used to wearing his wedding band, entered the playoffs ranked 44th, and hoping to catch fire once again and end a frustrating season on a high note.
The weather cooperated, with sunshine and a gentle zephyr drifting over Glen Oaks Club, 23 miles east of Times Square in New York City. Unfortunately, Rory’s A-game was nowhere to be found in Round 1 of The Northern Trust. McIlroy drove the ball well, but he needed 30 putts and found the water twice, settling for an unsatisfying 3-over 73.
“It’s pretty difficult. Some of the pin positions are tricky as well, on little knolls and so it’s hard to get it close,” McIlroy said. “That’s no excuse for shooting 3 over par, but it was pretty tricky.”
McIlroy said Wednesday that he was aware he had won at least one professional event every year since 2008, and he wants to win again before he concludes his season at the European Tour’s Dunhill Links Championship in October.
“I never got going, that’s the way it has been going for the last few weeks, it has felt a little disjointed,” McIlroy said. “I’m working on a few things, but I guess my body is only allowing me to work a little bit on them and not go full-bore at it. I’m stuck a little bit in between just trying to go out there and shoot scores and then concentrating a little on some technical stuff as well.”
He’s also not getting any help inside the ropes from his caddie, Harry Diamond, who took over the bag duties from J.P. Fitzgerald after McIlroy and Fitzgerald parted ways after the British Open.
Mike “Fluff” Cowan is caddying this week for Sung Kang because Jim Furyk did not qualify for The Northern Trust. Kang was grouped with McIlroy on Thursday.
On the 16th tee, Cowan saw that Kang had a fairway wood in his hands and doubt in his eyes, so he walked over to Kang with a yardage book open and they worked out a plan. Diamond, who was a solid amateur player in Ireland, is not a professional caddie and at no point did he do anything like that for McIlroy.
McIlroy walked off his own yardages in the fairway and on the tee boxes. While he sized up putts and tried to figure out lines, Diamond was typically off the side of the green by McIlroy’s bag.
Would J.P. Fitzgerald have turned McIlroy’s 73 into a 70 or a 69? Probably not. But there is no doubt that McIlroy, who is still somewhat hindered by nagging rib and back injuries, is now competing solo. Most pros will tell you the game is a little easier when you’ve got a good caddie. Jordan Spieth has Michael Greller helping him. Justin Thomas has veteran caddie Jimmy Johnson on his bag. Jason Day’s caddie, Colin Swatton, is also his coach. Get the idea?
Even if he misses the cut here on Long Island, McIlroy will qualify for next week’s Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston. Only the top 70 golfers on the FedEx Cup points list qualify for the following week’s BMW Championship, and at this point, the defending FedEx Cup champion is on the outside looking in when it comes to the Tour Championship because only the top 30 players advance to the season-ending event in Atlanta.
No one said being a solo act was going to be easy.