After two straight months of world-class golf, it seems through two rounds of the 2019 Players Championship as if Rory McIlroy has done what I thought it might not be possible for him to do. He’s somehow gotten … a little bit better?
McIlroy shot a 7-under 65 on Friday to catch Tommy Fleetwood at 12 under overall on the week, three clear of a group of four that includes Abraham Ancer, Ian Poulter, Jim Furyk and Brian Harman. McIlroy has bent and twisted his driver and his irons all over a course where he has not historically found success, and that has been all he’s found over the first two days at TPC Sawgrass.
A sampling of statistics through two rounds.
- McIlroy has hit 30/36 greens in regulation.
- McIlroy has hit 21 of 28 fairways.
- McIlroy has made one bogey in 36 holes.
- McIlroy has gained strokes from tee to green on 29/36 holes.
- McIlroy has made just six putts of more than 7 feet.
- McIlroy has gained over four strokes on the field from tee to green in each round.
It’s that last one that’s truly astonishing, even for somebody who is leading the PGA Tour in that category. He has maybe missed a shot or two here or there, but even the ones he thinks he’s missed — like a tee shot at the par-3 eighth on Friday — end up as birdies. McIlroy has doubled up the 16th best player in the field (Adam Scott) in strokes gained tee to green. McIlroy has gained 9.5 (!), and Scott has gained 4.7.
It has been a show, and maybe even more than that, it has felt sustainable. Sure, the weekend might not go as swimmingly as the first 36 holes (and Rory might go swimming at some point), but he’s not in over his head here. He’s not leading the planet in putting or chipping in for eagles. He’s just doing what he does at a slightly higher level than he normally does it. He’s elevating his play when it matters most.
His closing kick was evidence of that. With the sun setting on Jacksonville, fans ejecting for dinner and players mentally checking out as the cut faded from their purview, McIlroy went 3-2-4 on the last three holes of his second round to catch Fleetwood. It was a moment of heat at the end of a long two days that perhaps gave a window into what’s coming this weekend.
Following his 288-yard fading drive on the par-5 16th, McIlroy put an iron from 224 yards to 9 feet. The eagle got him within one. He pulled his tee shot on the 17th a bit but canned a 21-footer to knot it up with Tommy Locks. After blowing a drive through the fairway into the pine straw on No. 18, McIlroy hit a writhing, cutting wedge to 17 feet on No. 18. It wasn’t a birdie, but on a day when the average score on No. 18 was 4.2, it was plenty. And it was enough to see nobody in front of him on the board when he wakes up on Saturday morning.
All year you could make the case that McIlroy has been the best player in the world. He doesn’t have the wins to prove it, but his stuff has been, for an extended period of time, probably the best stuff. And whether he wins this weekend or not (see below for more on that), that will still probably be true. But for at least one evening this week with nobody in front of him and a field looking on at his preposterous play from tee to green, McIlroy at least has a couple of fingers around a trophy that would represent tangible evidence of just how great he’s been thus far in 2019.
Here are a few more thoughts on Round 2 at TPC Sawgrass.
1. Can Rory close? It’s the question of the weekend, right? It would be mildly eyebrow-raising if somebody other than Fleetwood or McIlroy won this tournament considering their caliber and the lead they’ve raced out to. History says this is how McIlroy wins, and his form has been as good as anyone in the world. But his record here hasn’t been the best, and he hasn’t exactly been shutting down Sundays.
2. Another ace: For the second consecutive day, we got an ace at TPC Sawgrass. On Thursday, it was Ryan Moore on the 17th. On Friday, it was Sungjae Im on the 13th. Unfortunately for Im, it wasn’t enough for him to make it to the weekend.
3. Balls in water on 17: There were just six balls hit in the water on No. 17 on Friday, but Tiger Woods had two of them. The scoring average on that hole dipped below 3.0 (which is unusual), and there were just 10 bogeys or doubles and no triples. There was one quad, though,.
4. The Phil ejection: Mickelson ejected pretty hard on the front nine, but the part that caught my eye was on the third green. After taking four putts from 25 feet on Thursday, he took three more from 6 feet on Friday. That’s … seven putts over 31 feet in two days, which is incredible. He joins the following players who all missed the cut.
- Xander Schauffele (E)
- Patrick Cantlay (+1)
- Jordan Spieth (+1)
- Henrik Stenson (+1)
- Phil Mickelson (+4)
- Zach Johnson (+6)
- Paul Casey (+8)
5. Ian Poulter? Ian Poulter!: One of the few calls I’ve gotten right this week is predicting that Poulter — who has finished in the top six in four of his last five starts worldwide — would have a nice week. He surged on the back of two chip-ins, and at one point played an eight-hole stretch in 3-3-3-3-4-3-3-3 (which is almost impossible to do)! I don’t know that I’m here for a Poulter win, but I’m certainly here for him having a contributing part on the weekend at this dramatic course.
6. Fowler throws down: Rickie Fowler shot a 67 on Friday that included this hole out from 80 yards for eagle. Fowler gained over three strokes on the field on approach shots (1.5 of them on that shot), and after a rough 74 in Round 1 when he was under the weather, he’s (sort of) played his way back into the tournament.
7. Perfect for Tommy? One thing I was thinking about as folks talked about the course baking and the weather turning cool is that this could get perfect for Fleetwood. Think about where he’s found the majority of his success in the U.S. Fleetwood has crushed at U.S. Opens where conditions are baked, hard and lightning quick. He’ll still have to deal with a nervy weekend, but I bet he wants it to firm up and howl as much as possible in Rounds 3 and 4.
8. All different types: The top 10 on this leaderboard is almost laugh-out-loud ridiculous. To contrast McIlroy and D.J. with Jim Furyk and Kevin Kisner with Keith Mitchell and Jason Day with Brian Harman and Ian Poulter. Long hitters, short hitters, great putters, bad putters, elite ball-strikers, not elite ball-strikers. This board is all over the map, which is both fun and the sign that the course is probably fairly setup.
9. Ryder Cup redux: Here is a scene 2018 U.S. captain Jim Furyk is probably familiar with. He couldn’t beat Europe while captaining the 12 best Americans, so now he’ll just try to take them on by himself. We’ll see on Sunday if the result is the same as it was in Paris.