PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Rory McIlroy has found his kryptonite. His record is now 0 for 3 in making the weekend at Sawgrass. Earlier this week he said his decision to skip the Players Championship last year “was not one of my brightest,” but it’s starting to look like it might have been the right move after all.
He shot a 76 to add to his first round 72, a four over par total.
“It’s unbelievable,” McIlroy said. “I shoot 14 under last week, and I feel like I hit it just the same this week, and I’m going home.
“I’ll come back, I promise,” he said with a grin. “Hopefully I’m coming back here for another 20 years. If I don’t figure it out on my 20th go, there’s something wrong.”
He said of all the courses he plays, this is the one that gives him nightmares. He’s not alone.
“You look at Tiger and Phil and the caliber of player that they are, they definitely have got other courses that are more to their liking,” he said.
This was the first cut McIlroy has missed in more than 12 months going back to Quail Hollow last May. He now has a week off before heading to Wentworth near London for the BMW PGA Championship.
His pal Graeme McDowell said McIlroy would, in time, work out the conundrum of Sawgrass.
“There is something about this course he doesn’t like, and he knows that in his heart,” McDowell said. “Rory is such an aggressive player, and this course gives you so many opportunities to be aggressive, but if you don’t pull that shot off you wish you hadn’t even bothered going for it.
“Rory told me he was going to be conservative. He told me he was going to play the ninth as a three-shotter, and I looked up at the highlights and sure enough he’s got a 3-wood out going for the green and hit into the trees. You can talk yourself into most things here, but that first bogey is very persuasive in talking yourself out of it.”
Thousands of spectators who gathered to follow McIlroy and Phil Mickelson were expecting fireworks from the flamboyant shot-makers. There were a couple of rockets and whiz-bangs, but mostly it was a display of damp squibs. McIlroy teased with a birdie at the 10th (his first), but his encore was five bogeys and 12 pars.
McIlroy usually bounces along like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. At Sawgrass, he was mostly Eeyore. His first bogey came at the par-3 13th, where he pushed his tee shot into a deep bunker. He needed to run his sand shot down the back of an elephant buried in the green and get it to stop at the hole. It trickled off the green 25 yards away.
Mickelson then gave McIlroy a close-up view of his short-game genius. His ball was off the back of the green, but he slid his wedge beneath it like he was slicing a fish and popped the ball over the rough to kiss the hole. Just as he was about to finish off the job with a two-foot putt, the honk of a Harpo Marx bicycle horn pierced the silence — a text coming in for the idiot who had left his mobile phone switched on. Mickelson never flinched. Par saved.
That was a nice moment for Mickelson, who is two under for the tournament after shooting another 71 on Friday, but the day was all just a little bit of a struggle for both players.
So, the No. 1 player in the world has gone home, but No. 2 Luke Donald and No. 3 Lee Westwood are still in the race, jogging along at three under par. Parents who can’t get their children to eat broccoli should send them to watch Westwood. He devours his greens all day. His play from tee to green is imperious, but it’s the meat and potatoes of putting that so often gives him cause for indigestion.
One birdie chance slipped by the hole at the 14th. Another lipped out at the 15th. He pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. He got two birdies to drop at the first and second but gave the shots back with bogeys at the fifth and sixth. Donald bagged two eagles but was held back by three bogeys.
Both Donald and Westwood head to the weekend with a lot of ground to make up, but No. 2 and No. 3 still have a chance, which is more than No. 1 can say. As Johnny Miller said, “The lead going into the weekend is often eight under, and then the pressure increases and the top players start moving up the leaderboard.”