Rory McIlroy has found his kryptonite. For 'boy wonder' on every other fairway, read 'boy blunder' at the Players Championship.
The world No 1's record at Sawgrass now reads: three appearances, three missed cuts. Now do all the critics understand why he decided to skip this $9.5m event last year?
It is horses for courses and in Ponte Vedra he turns from majestic thoroughbred to shaggy plodder. He signed for a 72, 76 -- the form-line of an also-ran.
Of course, after last year's furore concerning his absence, he will return.
"I'll be back -- I promise," he said, after finishing on four-over-par. "I just need to try to get the hang of this course somehow. There's something about this place I just can't get to grips with."
As he said it and peered up at the leaderboard, which featured Zach Johnson 12 shots ahead of him, confusion clouded his eyes. "It's unbelievable," he said, after his first missed cut in more than a year. "I shot 14-under last week at Quail Hollow to make the play-off and I feel I hit it exactly the same here, yet I'm going home. It's just one of those things."
Except it isn't. This is the one layout on planet golf where McIlroy, this fastest of learners, cannot stop flunking.
He came in confident that in the two intervening years his staggering improvement would have set him up for the Sawgrass examination. Instead, normal subservience resumed. His great friend, Graeme McDowell, thinks he knows the reason why.
"Rory went out this week with a two-iron, saying he was going to be conservative," said McDowell. "He told me he was going to play the ninth as a three-shotter. But then, I watched the highlights last night and sure enough on the ninth he's got a three-wood out, going for the green and hits it in the trees.
"It's all well and good saying you're going to be disciplined, but when the par-fives are there for the taking it's very hard to say no."
Especially when you are McIlroy, someone who has been going for shots since he was two years old.
"Rory's a confidence player," said McDowell, who finished on one-over after a 71 yesterday. "And it's tough mentally for him here. Historically he's played terribly at Sawgrass, and it's very hard to talk yourself out of that frame of mind. He'll have made his first bogey and thought 'here we go again.' But he's a talented player, he'll work it out."
McIlroy concurred with that statement, evidently determined not to display any of the resigned reaction which caused such ire at last year's Open.
"Hopefully, I'll be coming back here for the next 20 years," he said. "And if I haven't worked it out by my 20th go, I'll know there's something wrong."
He now has a week off before playing at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. By the time he reaches Surrey he might well have lost 'the world's best' tag again. Luke Donald now has the chance to reclaim the throne in this game of golfing musical chairs. At three-under, Donald is still in touch with the pacesetters, aware that a top-four placing would be enough to usurp McIlroy.
Two eagles in five holes hurtled him into contention. On the 16th (his seventh) Donald's sweetly struck five-iron ended up within kick-in range, while on the third (his 12th) he holed a 25-footer. At that stage, Donald was five-under and racing. The effects of a sinus infection which blighted his first-round 72 had eased and his putter was beginning to burn. But Sawgrass takes away, just as it gives, and three bogeys coming in restricted him to a 69.
On the same mark stands his playing partner Lee Westwood, after a 70. The world No 3 needs to win to leapfrog McIlroy and Donald and if his erratic short-game consents he will figure and figure highly. Westwood posted 12 birdies in his first two rounds and despite referring to himself as "a pint's half-full sort of guy", he will be aware how many shots have been squandered. Between them the English pair notched 20 birdies and two eagles and were only a collective six-under. Crazy.
Still, all Westwood requires is a repeat of last weekend's heroics, which saw him play the final two rounds in 10-under and leap from 65th to fifth, and England will have its first Players champion.
Britain boasts other contenders. London's Brian Davis is on six-under, as is Scotland's Martin Laird. A birdie on the 15th took him to 10-under and into a three-shot lead. But the Arizona-based Glaswegian located the water on the 16th for a bogey and then the water on the island-green 17th for a double-bogey. Sawgrass can be cruel. To McIlroy it is merciless. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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