In Review

The Players: a big opportunity awaits defending champion Rory McIlroy

World No.1 golfer aims to become the first back-to-back winner of the PGA Tour’s flagship event

If the daunting history of The Players Championship was intended to unsettle Rory McIlroy, he seriously deflected those fears this week.

No one has ever defended the championship in all 45 chances at the PGA Tour’s flagship event, but that does not worry the Northern Irishman, who last year birdied two of the final four holes to finally win a title that had eluded him. 

World No.1 McIlroy said: “If there’s been no one to defend [since Jack Nicklaus first had the chance in 1975], it would be a nice time to start and have someone do that. 

“It is an opportunity, for sure. I don’t think you ever need an extra motivation when you come to this golf tournament, but to be the first one to defend here would be very cool.”

There are emphatic, and rich, changes since McIlroy won a year ago – the purse is now $15m (£11.7m) and the winner’s share is $2.7m (£2.1m). But for the most part, this is a stop that has become one of the annual crown jewels on the professional golf landscape.

For starters, there is a 144-player field that is the deepest and best of the year. Adding more shine is a stage - TPC Sawgrass - that offers fans a recognisable set of holes, including the island-green, par-three 17th, that is arguably the most iconic in all of golf.

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Returning as world No.1 

Last year McIlroy took advantage, with birdies at the par-four 15th and par-five 16th propelling him to a one-stroke victory.

But it’s not as if he hasn’t experienced the pitfalls at TPC Sawgrass. He missed the cut in each of his first three starts and was an early departure in 2018, too, so McIlroy concedes the comfort factor has come slowly at this iconic Pete Dye-designed course. 

This year the 30-year-old returns to the tournament as the world No.1 and is considered, along with Tiger Woods, as the face of the PGA Tour. 

Victory at the WGC HSBC Champions last year was the 18th of his PGA Tour career, and since that effort there have been five straight finishes in the top five. 

What’s more, there are positive vibes to this year’s event at TPC Sawgrass, given what happened 12 months ago when McIlroy hit rounds of 67, 65, 70 and 70 to hold off Jim Furyk by one shot. 

“This [tournament] last year was huge for me in terms of sort of getting the monkey off my back,” said McIlroy, who then added two more wins to become the FedExCup champion and PGA Tour player of the year.

“It’s nice to be back. Obviously, it would be wonderful to replicate what happened last year.”

Event goes ahead as scheduled

Amid concerns of the coronavirus outbreak the PGA Tour has announced that The Players will go ahead as scheduled. However, regular updates will be provided as the PGA Tour works with the relevant authorities. 

In a statement the tour said: “The PGA Tour is aware of rapidly changing developments regarding COVID-19. With the information currently available, The Players Championship will continue as scheduled, although we will absolutely continue to review recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and local health administrations. 

“This is obviously a very fluid situation that requires constant review, communication and transparency, and we are dedicated to all three aspects.”

Coronavirus impact on sport events: what’s postponed, cancelled or being played behind closed doors?

McIlroy grouped with Koepka and Rahm 

The opening round of The Players Championship gets underway today at 11.40am (GMT). Live coverage from all four rounds at TPC Sawgrass will be broadcast in the UK on Sky Sports.

McIlroy will start his title defence at 5.51pm and he is grouped with Spain’s Jon Rahm and American Brooks Koepka. 

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