McIlroy, Rose take different turns at Players crossroads

Rory McIlroy during Thursday's first round of the PGA Tour's 2014 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Here’s one that likely won’t lead anchor Brian Williams’ script on this evening’s “Nightly News”: Golf. Fickle game.

But how else does one adequately explain the twists and turns inherent in this Scottish gift, the one that leaves players scratching their heads in bewilderment one instant and grinning the next. Let’s face it. On Thursday at The Players, Pete Dye’s “diabolical” Stadium Course was about as ferocious as a baby panda.

Thus, the scoring was there to be had, and Rory McIlroy was looking to be a king walking off the second green, his 11th of the day, having just knocked down his fourth birdie in a five-hole stretch. He was 5 under par.

Momentum. Lovely thing to have. And it washes away as quickly as the tide covers a shore. At the seemingly innocuous 169-yard third, the wind didn’t help McIlroy the way he expected it to, and his ball plunked down left of the green, in sand. He splashed one 5 feet past, missed the par putt, and suddenly he was on a train headed to some far different city.

What kind of day did it turn into? Well, he stepped to the tee at the 233-yard eighth and didn’t have a club for it.

"It was a perfect 3‑iron, but I don't have a 3‑iron in my bag, so I was trying to hit a little ‘ropey’ 4‑iron,” said the Northern Irishman. He roped it, all right. His shot took off low and left, into a front bunker, and when once more he could not get up and down, it gave him three bogeys in a six-hole stretch.

Awkward yardage, he would call it. That’s a good deal of what The Stadium gives a player. Awkwardness. Like standing in a Manhattan elevator with five-too-many people.

“You got tee boxes lining you up in wrong directions, and you're having to hit across a lot of fairways,” McIlroy said. “The depth perception is hard, with the way the trees are. It's just, visually, it's a typical Pete Dye golf course; it's just visually very awkward.”

McIlroy would finish at 2-under 70. Pretty good most years, but on Thursday, he termed it “average,” and that was accurate. He knew it was a day when he should have been far, far better, but that’s kind of the way things have gone for him of late. He walks off golf courses with numbers higher than they should be. He’s accustomed to that at Players, where only once in 11 rounds around the Stadium Course has he returned a round in the 60s.

Justin Rose, who played alongside McIlroy on Thursday, had a walk that was quite a bit different. On the range, he had absolutely nothing, like a pitcher warming up who knows his best pitch isn’t there. As he walked to the 10th tee, his coach, Sean Foley, told him, “You breathe, and I’ll talk.” It was the best plan they could hatch.

On the tee, Rose watched the compact, silky motion of American star-in-waiting Harris English, the third man in their group, as English’s opening tee shot went airborne.

“OK,” Rose thought to himself, “I can do something like that.

“Harris was my warm-up,” he would explain later, “… and I kind of had it from there.”

He did. At the shortish 12th, McIlroy was in the middle of the fairway, and Rose was off right, next to a tree. From 90 yards, McIlroy botched the hole, making bogey; Rose, on the other hand, peeled a wedge to 17 feet and holed the putt. Birdie. Coming home, Rose knocked one in tight at No. 4 when his ball took a good bounce off a front mound, setting up birdie, and he saved par at the rugged par-3 eighth from 14 feet.

One last birdie, and he was in at 5-under 67. It was lunchpail-like, and there was nothing at all glamorous about it. But guaranteed his lunch was far tastier than McIlroy's.

In the last month for Rose, the reigning U.S. Open champion, the results are beginning to build. He tied for 14th at the Masters, was T-8 at New Orleans, and last week finished fifth in Charlotte. Does his overall game feel on the uptick? Honestly? Not really, he says.

“I've just been scoring really more than anything,” he said. “I don't feel like I'm playing any better. I've been swinging the club well on the range for the most part all year, and just been waiting for it to turn around onto the golf course or being able to take it to the golf course.

“Even the last few weeks I don't feel like I've had my so‑called ‘A’ game, but (I’m) beginning to figure out how to get it in the hole, score, chip and putt, grind a little bit better, stay a bit more patient. So yeah, just sort of playing a bit more golf to get into that rhythm.”

Some days you find it, even when you start with nothing. And some days, you simply struggle to hear the beat.

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