COMMENTARY | It was lucky No. 7 for Rory McIlroy on Thursday at The Players Championship.
The world No. 2 and reigning PGA champion finally broke par at the Stadium Course, shooting an opening round of 6-under 66.
Starting on the 10th hole, McIlroy made no bogeys and six birdies, including five on the back side in his opening nine. It wasn't the best round of the morning wave -- Roberto Castro tied the competitive course record with 63 -- but it was his best effort in the PGA Tour's crown-jewel event by six shots.
The Ulsterman has never made the cut at The Players in three previous tries, but he appears destined for much more than his first Ponte Vedra paycheck. He's a contender.
Earlier in the week, McIlroy offered a pair of reasonable excuses for his early Players woes. The first year he competed in 2009, it was after a trip to Las Vegas. The following year, McIlroy turned 21 the week prior at the Wells Fargo Championship. He was blunt in his analysis of last year's third-consecutive missed cut, however.
"Last year I just didn't play well," he quipped with a laugh on Wednesday.
This time at The Players, McIlroy is on his game. Last week in Charlotte, McIlroy would have won the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow for the second time in four years were it not for an ice-cold putter. He was best in the field from tee to green, but could not sink a putt for his life.
Ballstriking, which is the strength of McIlroy's game, is coming back to him just a few months after officially joining the staff at Nike Golf for a reported nine-figure endorsement contract. Put the ball close to pin -- or at least as close as Pete Dye will safely allow -- on this track, and the birdie spigot will open wide enough to win.
"It's (the ballstriking) back to where it should be, which is hitting quite a lot of fairways and hitting it quite long but hitting a lot of greens," McIlroy said. "I'm usually up into the 70, 80 percent range when it comes to greens in regulation, and that's something that I've started to do, which is a good sign."
The clubs were not the entire problem, but McIlroy confessed there was an adjustment period in the early part of the season to the new sticks.
"I felt that if [the Nike clubs] felt good in practice [they] would feel good on the course, but I had to play tournament rounds," he explained. " I had to play to really know how it felt under pressure when I'm on the course, when I need to play a certain shot. That's when I really found out the most about the equipment and what I needed from it and maybe what I needed to change at the start."
A more lush schedule in the early part of the season, McIlroy said, may have gotten him to this point sooner.
Combine the time to get acclimated to new equipment with the roll out of freshly minted endorsement deals and the pressure of becoming Face 1 or 1(a) of the Swoosh staff alongside Tiger Woods, and there might be the recipe that produced McIlroy's early season disappointments.
With a 66 on the board at The Players, the specter of par behind him at the Stadium Course and his game coming around at the right time, perhaps a Pete Dye trifecta is taking shape for the two-time major champion.
"It's funny, the last two starts I've had on Pete Dye courses I've won: [the PGA Championship at] Kiawah and Crooked Stick [for last year's BMW Championship]," he said, before adding later, "Hopefully I'll make it a hat trick this week, three out of three."
Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.
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