Rory McIlroy’s Players Championship defence: Will 2019 parallels give him confidence?

Rory McIlroy arrives at TPC Sawgrass aiming to become the first player to ever successfully defend The Players Championship title, and if there is one thing in his favour, it’s the similarities between his results at the start of 2019 and this year.

So far this year the Northern Irishman has finished top five in the Farmers Insurance Open, Genesis Invitational, WGC-Mexico Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational – extending his top-five record to seven consecutive tournaments.

  • McIlroy aiming for Sawgrass history
  • ‘McIlroy has case for defence’
  • Why isn’t Rory winning more?

In 2019 he played in the same four tournaments as well as the Sentry Tournament of Champions, and among those five he only finished outside the top five at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he finished sixth.

That start in 2019 paved the way for his Players Championship title – can he continue those parallels and lift the trophy once more?

Here’s how his start to 2020 unfolded…

Farmers Insurance Open, Week 4 (T3)

McIlroy began in strong fashion by shooting 67 in his opening round of the year, but was six shots worse the next day to go into the weekend four under.

However, a five-under 67 in the third round left him on nine under, just three shots off the leader Jon Rahm and in with a chance to win it.

McIlroy endured a terrible start to the final round as he bogeyed three of the first four, though he did launch a revival when he followed a birdie at the fifth with a 20-foot putt for eagle at the sixth, and pulled himself back to within two of the lead with birdies at eight and nine.

But his challenge faltered again with a three-putt bogey at the 11th and another bogey on the 15th, which effectively left him too much ground to make up as he finished tied for third on 12 under, three shots short of winner Marc Leishman.

The Genesis Invitational, Week 7 (T5)

Nine of the world’s top 10 featured at Riviera Country Club, and McIlroy was tied with Matt Kuchar and Adam Scott for the lead going into the final round.

McIlroy lost ground early on the final day with a three-putt triple-bogey at the fifth, and dropped another shot at the par-three sixth.

The world No 1 had trialled a slightly longer putter during the tournament, and though it didn’t quite click for him, he closed a frustrating final day by rolling in a 20-footer at the last to finish eight under and claim his fifth consecutive worldwide top-five finish.

WGC – Mexico Championship, Week 8 (5)

McIlroy switched back to the flat stick he used throughout 2019 for the opening World Golf Championship of the year, and he immediately saw the benefits as he posted a six-under 65 at Club de Golf Chapultepec, giving him a two-shot lead after the opening round.

He then produced a late fightback to stay in contention after the second as he mixed five birdies with two bogeys in a round of 68.

McIlroy managed to get himself within one of the lead in the final round when he birdied three of the first six holes despite not being on top of his game, but he did not card another birdie until the 16th in a 68 which earned him outright fifth on 14 under par.

Arnold Palmer Invitational, Week 10 (T5)

The world No 1 took advantage of the calm morning conditions to post a six-under 66 and set the clubhouse target in the opening round at Bay Hill. McIlroy recovered from a slow start to card an eagle and five birdies, with the 30-year-old remaining in top spot until late starter Matt Every posted a bogey-free 65 to move into a one-shot lead.

McIlroy missed a 10-footer to drop a shot at the second hole of his second round and then had a three-putt bogey at the seventh before he took three blows to hack his way out of the right rough on the eighth on his way to a double-bogey six as he went round in 73.

McIlroy then found himself two shots off the lead after a testing third round that saw only one player shoot under par.

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And he was tied for the lead in the final round on five under when he birdied the fourth, but a double-bogey seven at the sixth and a double-bogey six at the ninth destroyed his victory chances as he eventually finished four behind Tyrrell Hatton.

“I guess for me today two bad, two loose shots sort of cost me,” McIlroy said afterwards.

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Tiger Woods will be inducted into golf’s Hall of Fame in 2021

Tiger Woods will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of fame in its class of 2021.

Woods has won 15 majors – second only to Jack Nicklaus’ 18 – and a joint record 82 times on the PGA Tour.

The 44-year-old will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in December after the age of entry was lowered from 50 to 45.

“Tiger has done more for the game than anyone ever thought possible,” said PGA Tour commissioner and World Golf Foundation Board member Jay Monahan.

Woods is currently out of action with a back injury but he has enjoyed a special 12 months.

He won the Masters at Augusta last April for his 15th major, but first since winning the US Open in 2008. His victory at the ZOZO Championship in Japan saw him draw level with Sam Snead on 82 PGA Tour wins, and he was a successful player-captain as USA defeated the International team in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in December.

“This past year has been such an incredible journey and the support I’ve received from my family, friends and fans has been overwhelming,” said Woods. “This achievement is the ultimate recognition to never give up and keep chasing.”

Woods is missing this week’s Players’ Championship at Sawgrass, but hopes to be fit to defend his Masters title next month.

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Paul Azinger clarifies European Tour comments with Sky Sports ahead of The Players

Paul Azinger has reiterated that he was not intending to disrespect the European Tour with his comments that did not go down well with the likes of Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter during the Honda Classic.

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The Golf Channel analyst caused a stir when he was attempting to describe the differences in pressure between the PGA Tour and the European Tour when Tommy Fleetwood was in the thick of contention during the final round at PGA National.

“There is a lot of pressure here,” said Azinger during the live broadcast. “You know you are trying to prove to everybody you’ve got what it takes. These guys know, you can win all you want on that European Tour, the international game and all that, but you have to win on the PGA Tour.”

His comments were branded as condescending and disrespectful by Poulter and Westwood, a winner of 44 professional titles in 19 different countries worldwide including two on the PGA Tour.

Azinger later insisted his comments were not malicious and that he meant no disrespect, and he clarified the point he was trying to get across in an in-depth interview with Sky Sports ahead of this week’s Players Championship.

“It’s a big deal if you can win over here on the PGA Tour, and that’s really what I was trying to say,” said the former Ryder Cup captain. “I wasn’t trying to insult anyone who plays on the European Tour, I know how hard that is. It’s a pretty big leap to say I don’t respect what those guys do on in Europe, that’s not what I was trying to say at all.

“Some guys choke over the money and the prestige, and we’ve got most of both on the PGA Tour, that’s the point I was trying to get across.

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Jon Rahm says he has ‘something to prove’ playing alongside Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka

Jon Rahm says he may have “something to prove” when he tees off in the first round of the Players Championship with Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka.

The Spaniard is excited about his grouping, which comprises of the three top-ranked players in the world, and says there will not be any slow play from the trio at TPC Sawgrass.

  • McIlroy grouped with Rahm, Koepka
  • McIlroy aiming for Sawgrass history

“It’ll be really fast playing with those two in the group,” Rahn said at Tuesday’s press conference. “I’m not going to act like I’m the fastest, but I know I’m not slow, so with them two and me, it’s going to be nice.

“You have the defending champion in one group, we have the 54-hole leader from last year and one of the best major championship performances we’ve seen in a very long time, so I’m excited.

“Brooks has had some really good rounds here; shot 9-under in 2019 on Sunday. You live for those moments.

“We all practice together in those nice groups and it’s nice to be recognised and it’s really nice to just be a part of it.

“I kind of feel like, not the outsider, but obviously they both have four major titles, both been No. 1 in the world, FedEx Cup Championships – many things.

“I feel like I’m trying to… I might have something to prove besides just good golf.”

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Rahm says it would be a “dream” to become the fourth Spaniard to win a major after Seve Ballesteros, Jose María Olazabal and Sergio Garcia, and is hoping he can take inspiration from his playing partners this week, for whom tournament wins sparked winning runs.

“I do know I have the talent and the skills to do it,” Rahm said. “It’s just a matter of doing it. It’s as simple as that.

“You never know. Rory got on a run in 2014 where he won two in a row. There’s just moments or times where players get in runs and get close.

“Vijay (Singh), late ’90s, early 2000s, obviously he did a lot more than just win majors, but it’s examples of where it can just happen.

“Look at Phil (Mickelson) when he won his first Masters in 2004 and between 2004 and 2008 basically he was contending in every single major he played at. Not that he didn’t content before but just that one win kind of got him going big time.

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Rory McIlroy rues costly ‘doubles’ in Arnold Palmer Invitational

Rory McIlroy admitted two “loose shots” had cost him as he could only finish in a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The world No 1 carded a four-over 76 in the final round on the testing Bay Hill layout which left him four behind the winner Tyrrell Hatton.

McIlroy was tied for the lead with Hatton on five under when he birdied the fourth, but a double-bogey seven at the sixth, where he hit his third shot through the green and into the rocks, and a double-bogey six at the ninth, where he drove out of bounds down the left, destroyed his victory chances.

“[It was a] tough weekend,” he said. “I guess for me today two bad, two loose shots sort of cost me.

“The third shot on six and then the tee shot on nine. I made two doubles there. Obviously, played the rest of the holes in even par and if I hadn’t have done that I would have had a good chance.

“But, yeah, it was tough. Look, I stood up here yesterday saying that the key tomorrow was to keep the big numbers off your card and I made two of those today and that’s what cost me.”

The Northern Irishman has now posted five consecutive top-five finishes without winning, but he believes another victory is just around the corner as he heads to The Players Championship to defend his title.

“There’s a lot of similarities between the start of this year and the start of last year,” he added. “A lot of chances not converting, but knowing that the game’s pretty much there.

“So just keep knocking on the door and go up to Ponte Vedra tomorrow and work on a few things and get back at it again.

“I’m doing what I expect myself to do every week, which is giving myself a chance. I give myself a chance most weeks and the more weeks than not it’s not going to happen. That’s just the way golf is.

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Tommy Fleetwood run out of Orlando as he misses first cut in 47 events

Tommy Fleetwood run out of Orlando as he misses his first cut in 47 events after an uncharacteristic performance

  • Tommy Fleetwood ended his run of 47 events without a missed cut in Orlando
  • He resorted to black humour after a jarringly uncharacteristic performance
  • He was the subject of unwanted attention after Paul Azinger’s recent comments 

Rather like Liverpool at Watford last week, Tommy Fleetwood did not do things by halves when it came to the end of his proud run of 47 tournaments — and almost three years — without a missed cut.

Two rounds of 76 meant he missed out on the weekend by miles at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a performance so jarringly uncharacteristic it was not surprising there was little left but to resort to black humour.

‘If you’re going to do it, you may as well do it properly and be dreadful on all fronts,’ was the Merseysider’s droll verdict. ‘My swing felt all right, but I didn’t hit it great, my chipping was very poor and I had two birdies against a ton of bogeys, so that’s not going to get the job done.’

Tommy Fleetwood ended his run of 47 events without a missed cut this week in Orlando

It was an uncharacteristic performance from the Englishman, who resorted to black humour

His caddie Ian Finnis tried to cheer him up, pointing out they do not turn up every week with the aim of just making the cut — but you could tell beneath the bluster, Fleetwood’s pride was hurt. As it should be, of course. The best run in America now belongs to Collin Morikawa, who was trying to make it 21 in a row on Friday.

‘I know what Finno means, you’d take two wins and two weekends off over four cuts made all day long,’ said Fleetwood. ‘But it was something nice to have, it speaks to a level of consistency that’s getting harder and harder to achieve with the standard now so high.’

Fleetwood came to Bay Hill in prime form, with one win and three other top-three finishes in his last six starts. His worst performance for six months saw him finish tied 18th.

It was fully understandable, therefore, to wonder whether outside distractions played their part, with Fleetwood the unwanted centre of attention following the furore over Paul Azinger’s ignorant dismissal on television last Sunday of the Englishman’s achievements. As you might expect, Fleetwood did not look for excuses.

Fleetwood was the unwated centre of attention after recent comments from Paul Azinger

‘I know it was a big thing in the golf world but I try not to think too much about what people are talking about and it didn’t bother me,’ he said. ‘I know it sounds crazy, given how bad my scores were, but I’m not miles away. I’ll use the time off to re-energise and get ready to go again at the Players Championship next week on a course that I like.’

If Fleetwood was feeling less than chipper as he made the 20-minute drive back to his rented home, spare a thought for American Matt Every. Twice a winner of this event, he shot a brilliant first-round 65 to lead Rory McIlroy by one shot.

Yet 14 hours later, he went out and followed it up with a horrific 83. He looked like becoming the first man since Camilo Villegas seven years ago to go from leading an event one day to missing the cut the next.

Every was suspended for three months last year after testing positive for a banned substance — in his case, cannabis, which he claims he needs to treat anxiety and which is legal in Florida with a prescription.

He will certainly need something to calm him down after this experience.

Ian Poulter fared nowhere near as badly but will be among the back markers in the third round

Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell fared nowhere near as badly but were two more in the cool, tricky conditions who could not build on promising first-round scores of 69 and 68 respectively. Poulter will be among the back markers in the third round following a 77 but McDowell remains in touch on two-under par after a 74.

The lead among the morning wave was held by American Harris English and last week’s Honda Classic winner, Korean Im Sung-jae on five under. American Patrick Reed continued his good form with a second-round of 70 to be one back.

McIlroy (66 on Thursday), Tyrrell Hatton (68) and Matt Wallace (69) were all among the later starters.

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Tiger Woods to miss The Players Championship with back problem

Tiger Woods is to spend another week on the sidelines as he bids to overcome his back problem and will miss The Players Championship next week.

Woods has not played since finishing last – among players who made the cut – at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in California three weeks ago, when he revealed he had back stiffness.

The 44-year-old subsequently swerved the WGC-Mexico Championship and also decided not to play in last week’s Honda Classic near his south Florida home.

It was thought Woods could return in this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational – he has won the tournament at Bay Hill eight times – but he delayed his comeback last week and has now decided to sit out the PGA Tour’s flagship tournament at TPC Sawgrass.

“Back just not ready,” said Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, in a text to ESPN. “Not concerning long term, just not ready.”

Woods has undergone back surgery four times in recent years and this latest delay raises further concerns over his fitness ahead of his defence of the Masters title next month.

The former world No 1 announced last week he was going to follow last year’s “blueprint” as he prepares to play at Augusta National.

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Arnold Palmer Invitational: World number one Rory McIlroy one off lead

World number one Rory McIlroy is one stroke off the lead after the opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida following a six-under 66.

The Northern Irishman, who won the event in 2018, began from the 10th hole and carded an eagle and five birdies.

Matt Every, whose two PGA Tour titles came at this event in 2014 and 2015, leads after a bogey-free 65.

Tommy Fleetwood, who missed out on his maiden PGA Tour win last week after bogeying the last, opened with a 76.

Florida native Every, 36, who is ranked 308 places lower than McIlroy, missed the cut at last week’s Honda Classic after a second round 85. “Sometimes I’m really good, sometimes I’m really bad,” he admitted.

Tyrrell Hatton is the best-placed Englishman after five birdies in a 68, joined by Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell who holed a 20-foot to birdie at the last in the challenging late afternoon conditions, with Matt Wallace one further back after starting from the 10th with four successive birdies.

McIlroy leads the PGA Tour scoring average this year with 68.205 and has finished in the top five of all six events he has played this season.

The four-time major winner, whose last tournament victory came at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai in November, dropped a shot at his second hole after finding water but picked up seven strokes in his closing 12 holes.

After an approach to three feet at the first he played a magnificent three-iron to 23 feet from a fairway bunker at the 587-yard par-five fourth and rolled in the putt for an eagle.

Tiger Woods, an eight-time winner of the event, is absent this week and playing a very limited schedule before defending his Masters title next month, while defending champion Francesco Molinari withdrew because of a back injury.

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Rory McIlroy moves into one-shot lead at Arnold Palmer Invitational

Rory McIlroy continued his remarkable start to 2020 by opening up an early one-shot lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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Arnold Palmer Invitational

The world No 1, who has posted top-five finishes in his last six worldwide starts, took advantage of the calm morning conditions at Bay Hill to post a six-under 66 and set the clubhouse target.

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McIlroy recovered from a slow start to card an eagle and five birdies during another impressive display, making the 2018 champion the best of the morning wave and putting him a shot clear of nearest challenger Talor Gooch.

Beginning on the back nine, McIlroy left his 12-foot birdie attempt at the tenth short of the target and bogeyed the par-four next after finding the water with his approach.

McIlroy missed a four-foot birdie chance at the par-five 12th and was still over par for his round until he followed a two-putt birdie from 30 feet at the 16th by rolling in a 10-footer at the 18th.

The Northern Irishman hit a superb approach into the first to set up a close-range birdie but missed a 10-foot chance for a third straight gain at the next, only to jump up the leaderboard with an eagle at the par-five fourth.

McIlroy struck a stunning second shot from the fairway bunker and drained a 25-footer to close the gap on Sam Burns, who briefly held a two-shot lead until dropping three strokes over his final two holes to post an opening-round 68.

A two-putt birdie at the par-five sixth moved McIlroy in a share of the lead alongside Gooch, who set the clubhouse target with a five-under 67, before he grabbed the outright advantage by holing from 15 feet at the par-four eighth.

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Francesco Molinari unable to defend Arnold Palmer Invitational title

Francesco Molinari has been forced to withdraw from this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational due to a back injury.

Molinari, who fired a final-round 64 to claim a two-shot victory at Bay Hill last year, made the decision to pull out shortly before the first round, when he was scheduled to tee off at 7:54am local time alongside Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose.

The defending champion admitted in his pre-tournament press conference that he had been “working through a few physical and technical” issues that have contributed to his alarming slump in form over the last year.

Molinari has not recorded a top-10 finish since his unfortunate late collapse at The Masters last April, when he led with seven holes to play before finding water at the 12th and 15th holes on Sunday to open the door for Tiger Woods.

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The Italian missed the cut by a distance in his first three starts of 2020 and finished outside the top 50 at the WGC-Mexico Championship, and his world ranking has now slipped to 26th having been comfortable inside the top 10 for the majority of last year.

“I’m a little bit behind where I was planning to be at this time,” Molinari said on Tuesday. “The start of the season has not been as good as I hoped for, but it’s only the start.

“There’s been a few physical things and technical things, but I’m working through it. I think I’ve got some good planning for the next few weeks building up to Augusta and some good direction to work towards.

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