In Depth

World No.1 Rory McIlroy sets his sights on making history at The Players

Northern Irish golf star is aiming to become the first back-to-back winner

History is on the line in Rory McIlroy’s title defence at The Players Championship next month.

The layout of Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass has rewarded all sorts of players over the years. A cursory glance at the past winners certainly attests to that.

Tiger Woods is the only player to win the event multiple times in the last 25 years, and is one of just four players to win as world No.1 – he accomplished the feat in both 2001 and 2013 - while Greg Norman in 1994 and Jason Day in 2016 are the others.

A fifth player - David Duval in 1999 - moved into the top spot after his win. 

It’s possible that Northern Irishman McIlroy could join that select group in the event from 12-15 March, as he rose once more into the world’s top ranking in early February following the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

With a number of PGA Tour events taking place before the Players, the rankings could of course change, but McIlroy is nevertheless in position to arrive as the best player in the world.

“I believe on my day I’m the best player in the world and I think I can do that for a long time,” said the four-time major champion.

“For the foreseeable future, I feel like I can be the best player in the world, and I want to make the most of that. I think with all the experience that I have and what I’ve learned over these past ten years, I think I can make the next ten even better.”

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Rory McIlroy celebrates with the trophy after his win at The Players Championship at Sawgrass in 2019

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Season-long goals 

The 30-year-old has won four times during the last calendar year, beginning with The Players in March 2019. He went on to win the Tour Championship, the RBC Canadian Open, his second FedExCup and the PGA Tour Player of the Year award. He ended 2019 with his first victory of the new season at the WGC-HSBC Champions and is currently fifth in the FedExCup standings.

McIlroy allowed himself to reflect on all of those accomplishments during the final month of last year, as he largely put his clubs away, except for Jack Nicklaus’ charity event and a round with his father, Gerry, at Seminole. 

“I just switched off, which was nice,” McIlroy said of the winter break. “Once I got back to the States on New Year’s Day, I got the clubs out of the closet and started to practice.”

The lengthy layoff didn’t seem to impact his game too much, as he finished tied for third in his 2020 debut at the Farmers Insurance Open from 23-26 January. 

That may spell trouble for the rest of the players on the PGA Tour. McIlroy maintains most of his season-long goals are tied into statistics - namely short game and putting - but did let slip that he would one day like to beat his career-best five wins of 2012.

“I would like to top that at some point, so I think that six number is still something that I strive towards,” he said. “But there's a lot of stuff that goes into winning those tournaments, so I’ve got to focus on my practice and what I need to do there, and if I do all that right, then hopefully getting to that six number and winning those tournaments is just a by-product of all the good stuff that I do away from the course.”

With major victories at the PGA Championship (2012 and 2014), US Open (2011) and The Open Championship (2014), McIlroy again comes into the year aiming for victory at The Masters in order to complete a career grand slam.  

In 2020 there’s also the small matter of a Ryder Cup to look forward to. For now though, McIlroy’s sights are set on Sawgrass.

Rory McIlroy is a three-time European Tour Race to Dubai champion

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

‘An event everyone wants to win’

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of McIlroy’s first PGA Tour win, when he shot a final-round 62 at the Wells Fargo Championship. He’s won 17 additional times since then, as the curly-haired 20-year-old steadily gave way into the world-class golfing superstar. 

Who knows just how many more he will add to his total before he calls it a career? But one thing is certain: he will always have at least one win - maybe more - on Pete Dye’s vaunted Players Stadium course.

“It means a lot because it is our tournament, and I think your peers recognise you for that achievement,” said McIlroy.

“Honestly, I think winning The Players last year went a long way to me winning the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award.

“I think that the players recognised that winning this event means an awful lot and it’s an event that everyone wants to win.”

The Players Championship 2020 takes place at TPC Sawgrass from 12-15 March and is live in the UK on Sky Sports Golf. 

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