The Players: Is Rory McIlroy the same player who won at TPC Sawgrass two years ago?

Rory McIlroy is still the reigning champion of The Players Championship. Its a unique situation, but on the flip side, there is a certain comfort in the normalcy of being back at TPC Sawgrass and wanting desperately to defend his title. Rory McIlroy finally gets the chance to defend his Players Championship title over 72 holes this week, after last years event was cancelled after one round. But is it the same McIlroy two years on?. . It was St Patricks Day, 2019. The daylight at TPC Sawgrass fittingly would end with a Northern Irishman in celebration. Rory McIlroy, still in his 20s – he was seven weeks away from turning 30 – had outlasted the strongest field in golf to win The Players Championship, the signature event on the PGA Tour. . Two years later, hes finally ready to defend his title. For real this time. . . It wasnt by choice that his wait has been so long. A year ago at the Stadium Course, McIlroy shot an even-par 72 in the first round. Not the score he was hoping to produce to begin his expected title defence, so he left the course that afternoon looking forward to a rebound round the next morning. . With an early tee time, he went to bed before the breaking news came down that Thursday night – The Players Championship was being cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a pandemic that would eventually shut down competitive golf for the ensuing three months. . . McIlroy awoke that Friday morning, jumped in the shower – he didnt even look at his phone – got dressed in his scripted outfit for the day and was about to walk out the door. Thats when he finally decided to check his text messages – and saw the one sent to all players by the PGA Tour. . . I was like, Oh, guess were not playing today, McIlroy recalled. I probably found out a little later than most. He changed back into casual clothes, went to TPC Sawgrass to pick up his belongings, then made the four-hour drive to his home in Jupiter, Florida. Everything was about to change. So now its a year later. Vaccines are being distributed. Hope is in the air. And McIlroy is still the reigning champion of The Players Championship. Its a unique situation, but on the flip side, there is a certain comfort in the normalcy of being back at TPC Sawgrass and wanting desperately to defend his title. . . The pressure is there, as it is with all title defenders. The Stadium Course still does not play favourites. McIlroy knows he must be in top form if he wants to become just the sixth two-time winner of The Players, a feat last accomplished by Tiger Woods. Doesnt matter if its 12 months or 24 months later – McIlroy hopes to make a good accounting of himself. . . Of course, the 12 months immediately following his Players Championship victory were more productive than these first 12 months of COVID. . Following his win at TPC Sawgrass, McIlroy won three more times in his next 18 worldwide starts, including the 2019 FedExCup title during the Tour Championship at East Lake. His final win of the year was the WGC-HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, China. After that, he reeled off top-five finishes in his ensuing six starts, moving him to world No 1 going into The Players in 2020. He was the hottest player in the world, and its most consistent. . . Then the pandemic. Three months of non-competition. When the players came back, everything was different. No fans on site, adhering to local restrictions and common sense. Protocols for testing and other safety measures. The new normal. . . And when McIlroy came back? Well, everything was definitely different for him too. All his momentum had been lost. In his first eight starts after the Tour resumed play, McIlroys best finish was a tie for 11th at the Travelers Championship. It wasnt until his last start of the calendar year, the Masters Tournament that had been rescheduled to November, did he manage his first top-five finish in the restart. . In his first five starts of 2021, he has a couple of top-10s, a couple of top-20s and a missed cut. The McIlroy of 2019 has yet to return, though. Its been 25 starts since his last win. Inside the ropes, hes standing over the ball five to 10 seconds longer than usual. A sign of indecisiveness thats not good for any golfer, especially when competing against the worlds best players. . . Theres quite a lot going through my head, McIlroy said. You cant play golf like that. It doesnt need to be perfect – and I realise that – but you just want your bad shots, your bad swings, to not be destructive. Over the past few weeks, those bad swings have just been a little too destructive and put me in some bad positions. So I need to play with more freedom and I need to be able to swing away. . . Hes been working hard on the range, hoping to solve the spinny cuts that have infiltrated his swing. Unlike past issues when his swing has become too shallow, this time his swing is too steep. A very different pattern than what Im used to, he said.

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