PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Rory McIlroy is the top-ranked player in the world and the defending champion at this week’s Players Championship, where 12 months ago he put on one of the more impressive performances of his career en route to a one-stroke victory. But he also arrives at TPC Sawgrass living these days in something of a golf purgatory.
He’s playing good but not quite good enough, or at least a little frustrated over some missed opportunities.
Last week, McIlroy tied for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It was his seventh straight top-five finish dating back to last year’s Zozo Championship, a remarkable stretch of consistency that has been matched only by Tiger Woods in recent years.
But not all top fives are created equal.
“I’d say last week was a bad top five,” McIlroy said on Tuesday. “I took advantage of a good draw. I got out early on Thursday morning and shot 66 and then sort of hung on for the rest of the week.”
And then he flamed out at the end of it.
Just two strokes off the lead going into Sunday, McIlroy imploded with a front-nine 40 at Bay Hill, where he made two sloppy double bogeys in a four-hole stretch. He finished with a final-round 76 to tie for fifth.
It wasn’t the first time he’s recorded a hang-on top five, either.
Two weeks earlier, at the WGC-Mexico Championship, McIlroy led by two after an opening 65 but struggled with his putting the next three days, finished fifth in the event and left Chapultepec annoyed that he hadn’t gotten more out of his game.
At last month’s Genesis Invitational, it was a similar refrain. McIlroy was tied for the lead going into the last day but stumbled home with a Sunday 73.
All of it has left McIlroy trying to focus on the process rather than the result.
“I don’t think you can ever go into result mode,” he said. “I don’t think that helps anything. I think you just have to keep going about your business, doing your thing. I think the only way to not win is to concentrate on the results.
“So if I can just concentrate on what I’m doing and what I’m doing well, what I maybe need to improve on a little bit, just break the game down into different sections but really just try to make it as simple as possible, if I can do a few different things in my golf game just a little bit better, those thirds and fifths will hopefully turn into wins. I’ve had some really good success following this path that I’m on, and I’m just really trying to focus on doing the little things right. If I keep doing those, then the byproduct is winning. I definitely don’t feel like I’m too far off.”
It’s hard to argue with McIlroy’s logic. He’s coming off a year in which he won four times around the world and took home PGA Tour Player of the Year honors after capturing the FedEx Cup.
And in Tiger’s prime, even he won only about 30 percent of the time.
Still, there are times when it feels like McIlroy is letting a few too many trophies slip through his fingers. Over his last seven starts he has a lone win to show for it, at the WGC-HSBC Champions.
But worrying too much about that can also be an exercise in futility, if not madness.
“You definitely have to look at it as a positive,” said Justin Thomas, who has two wins this season but couldn't convert his 54-hole lead at the WGC-Mexico Championship three weeks ago, shooting a closing 73 to finish tied for sixth. “When you’re as talented as Rory is, you keep putting yourself there, it’s going to happen eventually, and he has the capability to do what he’s done a couple times where he might win four events in six weeks or win a couple in a row.
“I know he knows that, I know we all know that, and he’s playing some unbelievable golf. I just respect what he does because he works really hard. He takes it extremely seriously.”
Jim Furyk, who has 188 career top 10s and finished second at the Players a year ago, agreed.
“As players, we all get frustrated by that,” Furyk said. “Getting close, not getting over the hump. It’s frustrating for everyone.
“If it were happening to me, I’d be frustrated and I’d be pushing and I’d be trying a little too hard and I would be working hard at home, and I’m sure he’s doing all those things. But from an outsider looking in, the way I look at it is the guy is super talented, and it’s just a matter of time. He’s going to keep knocking on the door, and then when the flood gates open, look out, we’re all going to be in trouble there for a little while.”