Rory McIlroy can take his tournament winnings for the past 12 months past the (€8.6m) $10.7 million mark this week. To do so, and to take a stranglehold on the world No 1 ranking he earned for the third time in just nine weeks on Sunday, the kid with the midas touch must win The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
Winning the unofficial “Fifth Major” sounds like child’s play for 23-year old McIlroy, whose play-off defeat to Rickie Fowler in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow on Sunday was his fifth second place finish from just 23 starts over the 12 months.
Considering he has won another four events, including last year’s US Open, and recorded 17 top-10 finishes in the same period, he’s arguably the hottest player on the planet.
Only Luke Donald, who lost the No 1 spot to McIlroy on Sunday, can argue the toss. The Englishman has four wins, two seconds and 16 top 10’s in the 27 events he’s played since finishing fourth behind KJ Choi at Sawgrass last year.
On current form, either man could win. But on paper at least, the records say that McIlroy will do well to make the cut on a course he says he simply doesn’t like.
At least, that’s what he said in Dubai at the end of 2010, when he was trying to justify his imminent decision to skip The Players last year.
“I don’t like the golf course for a start. So that’s one of the reasons that I’m undecided whether to play it or not. … I mean, if I’m going over there for two weeks, I would be looking forward more to Quail Hollow than I would to The Players. But that’s just my opinion. Not to say that The Players isn’t a great event. It’s very prestigious and it would be great to win it one day, but just — yeah, just might not suit the schedule next year.”
No-one could really blame McIlroy for skipping Sawgrass. After all, he played in the event in 2009 and 2010 and missed the cut both times. He’s never broken par in four attempts, shooting rounds of 74 and 77 on his debut. On his return in 2010, he arrived in Jacksonville having just won his maiden PGA Tour title at Quail Hollow. He celebrated his 21st birthday during tournament week but shot jaded rounds of 73 and 72 to miss the cut again.
In hinting last year that he would probably join stablemate Lee Westwood in giving Sawgrass a miss in 2011, McIlroy was being loyal to Chubby Chandler’s ISM stable and the larger than life agent’s somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the PGA Tour. “They start dictating to you,” was his warning shot to McIlroy when he considered joining the tour against the bosses wishes following his attention-grabbing performances in 2009.
McIlroy’s principal reason for not going back to Sawgrass last year was the golf course, not politics, he claimed:
It’s a Pete Dye course, and it’s sort of, it’s just — I find it very awkward off the tee. You know, you’re hitting across fairways all the time. It creates angles, a bit like Whistling Straits. He designed that course, as well, where the tee boxes are sort of lining you up in the wrong direction. Visually, visually it’s very tough off the tee, I find. He makes you feel uncomfortable, because it looks like you’ve only got a little bit of fairway to hit it but actually once you get up there, it’s a little bit wider. It’s just very visually demanding I think.
Q. And do you like Quail Hollow because you’ve won there, or because the design suits your eye, and who designed it?
RORY McILROY: Not sure who designed it. I think Quail Hollow is a bit like a mini-Augusta in a way. They have got the same sort of bunkers and very similar greens. Yeah, it’s more of a straightforward golf course. You know, there’s a lot of definition. You can see where you’re going. But I mean, the two, they are like chalk and cheese, it’s sort of hard to compare them. Yeah, it’s personal preference. Some guys love Sawgrass and some guys don’t like it so much.
All has changed in McIlroy’s world since then, of course. Quite apart from finding love with the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, he has now left Chandler and has Dublin-based Horizon Sports Management looking after his affairs. As a result, Sawgrass is very much back on his schedule.
So was he exaggerating his dislike of the golf course or simply being loyal to Chandler by staying away last year? When speaking to Golf.com’s Alan Bastable earlier this year, McIlroy appeared to make it clear that it was more the latter when he explained why he regretted giving up his PGA Tour card at the end of 2010:
“That’s another example of being involved with Chubby [Chandler] and ISM and maybe being led down the wrong path, or a path that I didn’t want to go down. It was something I sort of felt like I had to do. I think just spending a little bit of time around Chubby and Lee and hearing their view of the PGA Tour - obviously they’re very pro-European Tour - while I have always been one who wanted to play on the PGA Tour. Not playing Sawgrass was one of the decisions I look back on and regret a little bit.”
McIlroy is now an American idol, one half of a Rory-Rickie axis that is already being hailed as a rivalry to match the Woods-Mickelson dynamic that fuelled the PGA Tour for 15 years. Neither Horizon nor McIlroy were willing to thumb their noses at the US public, Tim Finchem or the PGA Tour by snubbing their flagship tour event. But it still remains to be seen if he consign his dismal Players Championship record to history and justify his standing at the best player on the planet.
Rory McIlroy’s magical year
Wells Fargo Championship Wk 18 2012 T2 $572,000 (€439,696)
MASTERS TOURNAMENT Wk 14 2012 T40 $32,000 (€24,598)
WGC - Cadillac Championship Wk 10 2012 3rd $516,000 (€396,649)
Honda Classic Wk 9 2012 WIN $1,026,000 (€788,686)
WGC - Accenture Match Play C’ship Wk8 2012 2nd $850,000 (€644,036)
Omega Dubai Desert Classic Wk 6 2012 T5 €62,665
Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Wk 4 2012 2nd €231,349
Dubai World Championship Wk 50 2011 T11 €105,181
UBS Hong Kong Open Wk 49 2011 WIN €341,723
WGC - HSBC Champions Wk 45 2011 T4 €181,310
Lake Malaren Shanghai Masters Wk 44 2011 WIN $2,000,000 (€1,537,400)
<—-Leaves Chubby Chandler’s ISM stable—->
Kolon Korea Open One Wk 41 2011 2nd $81,622 (€62,742)
Alfred Dunhill Links Championship Wk 40 2011 2nd €392,096
KLM Open Wk 37 2011 3rd €112,680
Omega European Masters Wk 36 2011 T3 €103,333
PGA CHAMPIONSHIP Wk 33 2011 T64 €10,957
WGC - Bridgestone Invitational Wk 32 2011 T6 €149,294
Irish Open Wk 31 2011 T34 €11,125
The 140th OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP Wk 29 2011 T25 €43,313
US OPEN Wk 25 2011 WIN €1,003,414
The Memorial Tournament Wk 23 2011 5th $248,000 (€190,637)
BMW PGA Championship Wk 22 2011 T24 €44,100 (€33,899
Volvo World Match Play Championship Wk 21 2011 T9 €58,730
Total prize money €6,925,513 ($9,009,383)
5 Runner ups
Money per event €109,261