Players Championship: Rory McIlroy taking inspiration from 2019 fightback for golf's 'fifth major'

Players Championship: Rory McIlroy taking inspiration from 2019 fightback for golf's 'fifth major'

Rory McIlroy is prone to casting his mind back to the Players Championship of 2019 when he finds himself under pressure in a tournament.

Five years ago, the Northern Irishman’s challenge appeared to be falling apart, following a bogey on the 14th hole of his final round and with late charges by the likes of Jim Furyk, Eddie Pepperell and Jhonattan Vegas.

But birdies on two of the last four holes — one of the most punishing finale’s in the world — were enough to add his name to a golfing who’s who of winners.

“I think with the one-shot lead, the way I played the 18th hole on Sunday, any time I’m under pressure or in a situation like that again, I can always draw on that experience and memory to try to get me over the line,” he said in the lead-up to this year’s event, which gets under way today at TPC Sawgrass.

“Everyone wants to put their name on that list of winners. It’s just like a major championship. You have to beat the best field in golf to win there — and you have to do it on an iconic golf course that all the greats have done it on before you. It’s one of the biggest events in golf.”

The Players, which this year is celebrating a half-century on the calendar, remains the PGA Tour’s flagship event, with the money to back it up. Its £19.5million overall prize purse shows bigger pockets than any of the four majors, with Sunday’s winner seeing their bank balance boosted to the tune of £3.5m.

McIlroy will be among the players discussed among the potential winners, but the standout favourite is clearly Scottie Scheffler, in the wake of his five-shot victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week.

Rory McIlroy famously fought back to win the 2019 Players Championship (Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy famously fought back to win the 2019 Players Championship (Getty Images)

It was the same winning margin the American produced in getting the better of the rest of the field at the Players last year.

The only problem 12 months on for his rivals is Scheffler, having worked with British putting coach Phil Kenyon since the latter part of last season, looks to have remedied the one weakness in his game.

Last week, 16 putts from within 10ft dropped for Scheffler. In the process, it put him in the top-five performances in terms of putting in the field.

The win was timely, his first since that 2023 Players one, and his Bay Hill final round was blemish-free, the only player competing on Sunday not to drop a shot.

Even without the victories, he recorded 17 top 10s last year and was outside of that mark just four times on tour since the Players, a remarkably high level of consistency. So good is the rest of his game that his US Ryder Cup team-mate Wyndham Clark summed it up thus: “It would be ­borderline unfair if he starts putting really good.”

The Players has been a feature on the calendar since 1974, when Jack Nicklaus proved the inaugural winner. It moved to its current home in 1982 and its list of winners has been star-studded ever since.

McIlroy, Nicklaus and Scheffler aside, other champions have included Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Greg Norman.

Remarkably, an Englishman has never before won it, the highest-ranked this week, world No11 Matt Fitzpatrick, among those hoping to right that wrong.

TPC Sawgrass’s most iconic hole is undeniably the 137-yard par-three 17th, which has witnessed 13 holes in one but is more synonymous with splashes of water on what is, to all intents and purposes, an island green, despite a thin walkway onto it. It has the propensity to derail as well as delight.

It would be ­borderline unfair if he starts putting really good

Wyndham Clark on Scottie Scheffler

When course designer Pete Dye created it, he said: “This is the hole that gets into every player’s mind from the very first tee and nags them for four hours or more. They know it’s coming, they have to face it.”

Some have described it as ‘mind of water’, others called it ‘a frying pan over the fire’. Ludvig Aberg, one of the rising stars of the PGA Tour and with the game to win at Sawgrass, is a debutant in the main field, having played the junior event a year ago.

Of his four attempts at the 17th, he said: “They stayed dry, at least when I hit them! I think I even birdied it one of the days.”

As for the trick to coming out on top of the 144-strong field, the 24-year-old Swede, a breakout star of last year’s Ryder Cup triumph, added: “If you want to win the tournament, you’ve got to hit some shots. Just really looking forward to coming back.”

In short, Sawgrass is far removed from some tour courses, where long drives and forgiving fairways can be the order of the day.

Instead, an all-round game is required for victory — hence its formidable list of winners.

Fleetwood backed to break English Players hoodoo

Historically, Europeans haven’t done that well. There’s been only five European winners — and not one Englishman. The one I’d pick out to win this week is Tommy Fleetwood, writes Sky Sports presenter Nick Dougherty.

Tommy had a good start to the year with a brilliant win at the Dubai Invitational to hold off Rory McIlroy, and his game looks really polished.

This is, as Justin Thomas called it, a full-package golf course. It tests every single part of your game and I really like Tommy’s chances of being the first English winner here.

Rory’s an obvious pick. He’s won here before and he’s a threat, even though he’s not absolutely flying at the moment on the PGA Tour. We know he’ll catch fire at some point, he always does, and his game also suits this place.

The reason he’s had success here is that he’s not afraid to hit the right shot for what the hole asks. The modern-day game is understandably built on players being the master of one trade, which might be fading the ball.

Tommy Fleetwood could continue his strong start to 2024 at TPC Sawgrass (Getty Images)
Tommy Fleetwood could continue his strong start to 2024 at TPC Sawgrass (Getty Images)

With the severity of this golf course, if you have the skillset to work the ball both ways, then you have an advantage. And if Rory’s putter had fired more, he would have more than just one Players title. Talking of which, Scottie Scheffler is another pick every week — he has to be.

For me, he rivals Tiger Woods in his prime with his ball-striking powers. He’s the out-and-out world No1 and, if his putting is even just average, people will struggle to stay with him.

For me, personally, TPC Sawgrass is my worst nightmare as a golf course: you feel like you can hit six or seven on every hole. It’s guys with consistency of ball striking that you need when it comes to the crunch time of 17 and 18.

Matt Fitzpatrick is another who fits the bill for that. If he can pull all of his cgame together this week, he’ll also be in contention.