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McIlroy on a Mission

by Chris Cox / Images: Getty Images / Omega

A year ago, Rory McIlroy arguably claimed one of the biggest wins of his career at The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, where a stirring Sunday finish saw him emerge on top amongst a flurry of late competitors. The burning question now is whether McIlroy can build on his 2019 Sawgrass triumph in 2020 with a successful title defence.

Rory McIlroy at the 18th tee during the final

round of The Players Championship 2019

Rory McIlroy at the 18th tee during the final

round of The Players Championship 2019

n March 17th, 2019, Rory McIlroy looked out beyond the famed island green at

The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Darkness had long since set in, but the lights from the surrounding grandstands provided more than enough illumination for him to marvel at architect Pete Dye’s finest masterpiece.

The Northern Irishman reflects on his 2019 victory, a stunning turnaround from

his first three appearances in the event – all of which resulted in missed cuts. “I

think every time I first play a Pete Dye course, I haven’t appreciated it or liked

it, and I feel like I can’t… it’s visually intimidating,” McIlroy explained. “It seems to make you sort of hit tee shots where everyone else hits their tee shots. It’s a very strategic style of golf, and I think I needed to learn how to play that style. I was stubborn and a little immature in trying to overpower this golf course, and that’s something you can’t do.”

Dye would have smi led to hear McIlroy’s frustration. After all, this is the same man who once said, “Golf is not a fair game, so why should I build a fair golf course?” It was a fitting final tip of the cap to Dye, who passed away on January 9 - mere hours after McIlroy’s words of praise - at the age of 94.

“A 2008 inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Pete’s influence is far-reaching, leaving a global imprint on both the amateur and professional games. He designed some of the bestknown golf courses in the world, though none more recognisable than The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass,” noted PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan. “It was here that Pete masterfully brought Commissioner Deane Beman’s revolutionary stadium golf concept to life, melding Deane’s vision with a brilliantly designed course that is celebrated annually as one of the game’s great strategic courses during The Players Championship.”

McIlroy, in a sense, was the ideal test subject for one of Dye’s most infamous designs. He missed the cut at The Players in 2009, 2010 and 2012, shooting a combined 12-over par in those appearances.

But he steadily began to piece together Dye’s puzzle after that. He finished inside the top 15 in each of his ensuing four starts, and then after a tie for 35th and one more missed cut, he finally put it all together in 2019 with a victory. For that, McIlroy will hold an enduring legacy as the last player to master the Stadium Course in its creator’s final days.

McIlroy enjoying a quiet moment in the locker room

“Jay [Monahan] made a great point in saying that it’s the ultimate democratic golf course,” McIlroy said. “It doesn’t favour anyone. You’ve got to show up and hit

the shots and play well from Thursday morning until Sunday afternoon.”

“I missed my first three cuts here, so it took me a while to figure the place out,” he added, “but I feel like I finally have it.” The question which now looms is

whether McIlroy can build on that legacy in 2020 with a successful title defence. The Players is still waiting for its first backto back champion and claims only six

multiple champions in its history.

Just the way Pete would have wanted it. “You go from Fred Funk to Tiger Woods to (Matt) Kuchar to whoever, everyone and every style of game has won here, which I think makes it pretty (challenging),” added McIlroy. “Getting around the course is tough, but I think because it doesn’t suit any one style and you can get it done in a lot of different ways, it brings more people into it.”

Dye’s layout has rewarded all sorts of players over the years, as the numbers can attest to. Tiger Woods is the only player to win the event multiple times in the last

25 years, and is one of just four players to win as World No. 1 – he accomplished the feat in both 2001 and 2013, while Greg Norman in 1994 and Jason Day in

2016 are the others. A fifth player - David Duval - moved into the top spot after his win in 1999.

It’s possible that McIlroy could join that select group in March, as he rose once more into the world’s top ranking in early February following the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. That could of course change before the Tour returns to Ponte Vedra Beach - a World Golf Championships event and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, among others, have yet to be played at the time of this article being published - but McIlroy is nevertheless in a position to arrive as the best player in the world.

History is on the line in McIlroy’s title defence, but he believes he’s up to the challenge.

 

“I believe on my day I’m the best player in the world and I think I can do that for a long time,” he said. “With all the experience that I have and what I’ve learned over these past 10 years, I think I can make the next 10 even better.”

The 30 year-old won four times during the lastcalendar year, beginning with The Players in March. He went on to win the Tour Championship, the RBC Canadian Open, his second FedExCup and the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award. He ended 2019 with his first victory of the new season at the WGCHSBC Champions and is currently at No. 6 in the FedExCup standings.

McIlroy allowed himself to reflect on all of those accomplishments during the final month of the year, as he largely put his clubs away outside of Jack Nicklaus’ charity event on the first of the month and a round with his father, Gerry, at Seminole.

“I just switched off, which was nice,” McIlroy said of the winter break. “Once I got back to the States on New Year’s Day, I got the clubs out of the closet and started to practice.”

The lengthy layoff didn’t seem to impact his game too much, as he finished tied third in his 2020 debut at the Farmers Insurance Open.

That may spell trouble for the rest of the players on the Tour. McIlroy maintains that most of his seasonlong goals are tied into statistics - namely short game and putting - but did let slip that he would one day like to beat his career-best five wins of 2012.

“I would like to top that at some point, so that six number is still something that I strive towards,” he said. “But there’s a lot of stuff that goes into winning those tournaments, so I’ve got to focus on my practice and what I need to do, and if I do all that right, then hopefully getting to that six number and winning those tournaments is just a by-product of all the good stuff that I do away from the course.”

This year marks the 10th anniversary of McIlroy’s first Tour win, when he shot a final round 62 at the Wells Fargo Championship. He has won 17 additional times since then, the once pudgy, curly haired 20 yearold has steadily evolved into a world-class superstar.

Who knows just how many more he will add to his

total before he calls it a day? But one thing is certain: he will always have at least one win - maybe more - on Pete Dye’s vaunted Players Stadium course.

“Honestly, I think winning The Players last year went a long way to me winning the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award. I believe that the players recognise

that winning this event means a great deal and it’s one that everyone wants to win.”

McIlroy plays Omega Ambassador