Life’s a beach for Rory McIlroy at Players Championship

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MAY 09: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays his shot from the 17th tee during practice rounds prior to THE PLAYERS Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on May 9, 2018 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Life’s a beach for Rory McIlroy at Players Championship

PGA Tour

Life’s a beach for Rory McIlroy at Players Championship

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — When he first came to TPC Sawgrass almost a decade ago, Rory McIlroy used to stay at the Marriott hotel on the property, which during the week of the Players Championship is akin to pitching a tent in Times Square on New Year’s Eve and hoping for a relaxing night’s sleep. 

“A lot of players and sponsors and all sorts of people stay right onsite here and it sometimes it can get a little bit too much and a bit busy. You’re trying to make your way through the lobby so quickly and sort of keep your head down so you don’t make eye contact with anyone,” McIlroy said Wednesday.

Hardly surprising then that his first three appearances brought three missed cuts. He hasn’t missed a cut since then, logging three top 10s in his last five starts. So what changed?

“I started staying on the beach a few years ago, and that’s made the event a lot more enjoyable,” he said. “I just felt like I couldn’t get away from it, and it’s busy and there’s a lot of people, so to go and stay on the beach now it’s a nice sort of release from everything that’s going on around the event. So I actually put a lot of it down to that.”

McIlroy parts ways with putting coach

The four-time major winner is adept at making changes designed to give himself the best opportunity to compete. Golfweek has learned that McIlroy has officially parted ways with putting coach Phil Kenyon, with whom he had worked since the fall of 2016. In March, McIlroy spent time with PGA Tour veteran and renowned putter Brad Faxon and went on to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill six days later. Kenyon’s status in Team Rory has been the subject of speculation ever since, but a source close to the situation confirmed an amicable parting of the ways. The source requested anonymity since they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.

McIlroy stands 31st in strokes gained putting this season after not breaking the top 125 in that category for the last three years, and his obvious confidence in the shortest club in his bag should compensate for some recent struggles with the longest club. He ranks 158th in driving accuracy on Tour this year, but that might not be too troubling at TPC Sawgrass, where he says he may only hit driver a half-dozen times each round.

“I’ll probably only hit — depending upon the wind — one or two drivers on the front nine, on the fifth and the ninth. Then on the back nine there’s a few more. I’ll probably use it on 11, 14, 15, 16, and then maybe 18, depending upon the wind. Definitely more 2-irons and 3-woods off tees than driver this week.”

Perhaps the most daunting shot here is also one of the shortest, to that infamous island-green 17th hole.

“I’ve always said, you put a bunch of grass around that hole and it’s the easiest par-3 in the world,” McIlroy said. “The toughest thing about that hole is the wind because there’s so many of the hospitality units up now and because the tee box is quite sheltered compared to where the green is, you just have to make sure you get the wind right. It’s a hole where you’ll take 3 on it every day and move on.”

Learning to like the course

This is McIlroy’s ninth attempt to win the Players Championship, and he admits it has been a long learning curve to come to grips with TPC Sawgrass.

“I’ve learned to like the golf course, and I’ve had to do that a lot with Pete Dye courses. The first time you get on some Dye courses they’re very strange and they set you up at wrong angles, and visually they’re just a little bit not what you want to see, but you learn to deal with it and play the way he wants you to play,” he said. “I was a little stubborn the first few years I came here and was trying to sort of break away from that, but, yeah, you just have to play this golf course a certain way and be a little bit better than everyone else with your irons and your wedges, and that’s usually a good combination around here. It’s a golf course that can frustrate you. I think that’s what Pete Dye does so well. He can frustrate you by the design of his golf courses, and you feel like you’re getting bad breaks, and that can get under your skin a little bit.”

Staying on the beach has soothed some of McIlroy’s angst at this event, allowing him to focus on winning rather than the slings and arrows that mortally wound most competitors along the way at TPC Sawgrass.

“This is my ninth time here, so I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I’ve got a few years under my belt, and it took me a few years to figure it out, but I’ve had a few top-10s here and I haven’t been quite right in contention but I’ve been close enough,” he said. “I think it is about time I step up and give myself a chance on Sunday.”

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