PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Rory McIlroy felt his game was just as good as it was last week, with one big difference.
He lost in a playoff at Quail Hollow.
He won't even make it to the weekend at the TPC Sawgrass.
"I just need to try and get the hang of his golf course somehow," McIlroy said Friday after a 4-over 76 at The Players Championship, well over the cut line. "I just find it pretty difficult. But, yeah, just one of those weeks."
Those weeks tend to happen at Sawgrass.
In his three appearances, the 23-year-old McIlroy has never made the cut and never even broken par in six rounds. He started out on a calm, sunny morning as though that would change when the U.S. Open champion rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt.
But he missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the next hole, scrambled for bogey on the par-3 13th hole and lost all momentum when his second shot to the par-5 16th failed to draw over the water toward the green, splashing down some 10 yards from dry land. He managed to save par, but the tone was set for the day.
McIlroy had gone 22 consecutive official tournaments without missing the cut, dating to the Wells Fargo Championship last year.
He couldn't attribute this to his form.
McIlroy had finished out of the top five only one time this year, when he tied for 40th in the Masters. He won the Honda Classic, lost in the final of the Match Play Championship in Arizona and was second at the Abu Dhabi Championship against a strong field. He arrived in Florida after losing in a playoff at Quail Hollow.
"I've come back here a much better player — a much more consistent player, experienced player," he said. "And, yeah, I felt like I would come here and think my way around the golf course and just try and play steady golf. I tried to do that, and it just didn't happen."
Put him on Sawgrass, however, and he doesn't look like the same player.
"It's unbelievable," McIlroy said. "I shoot 14 under last week and I feel like I hit it just the same this week. And I'm going home. So it's just one of those things. But I'm not getting down on myself about it. I played well last week, and I've got a big part of the season coming up and looking forward to that."
McIlroy is not the only star to struggle at Sawgrass.
Tiger Woods was a runner-up in 2000 and won in 2001. But out of 15 years, those were the only times he was in serious contention going into the back nine on Sunday. Phil Mickelson played 13 times with ordinary results until he finally won in 2007. Ernie Els has never won The Players Championship. Neither has Vijay Singh, who practically lives at Sawgrass (at least on the practice range).
"You look at Tiger, who has won here, and Phil," McIlroy said. "But for the caliber of player they are, they definitely have got more layouts that are more to their liking," McIlroy said. "It's just a course that you have to figure out, and it's taken me awhile. I'll come back next year, my fourth attempt, and try to make it to the weekend."
Graeme McDowell, McIlroy's best friend on tour, can relate. McDowell struggles at Augusta National, so his tie for 12th at the Masters felt like a small victory.
"You're not going to take that week off," McDowell said, referring to the Masters.
The Players Championship is not the same. McIlroy and Lee Westwood missed last year when neither was a PGA Tour member (both are members this year and played). Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel chose not to play this year, along with Paul Lawrie and Anders Hansen, both of whom were eligible. Masters champion Bubba Watson chose to stay home with his newly adopted son.
"Certain guys don't like this course," McDowell said. "A week off is available. But it's a lucrative purse."
Fear not — McIlroy says he will return.
"I'll come back. I promise," McIlroy said with a big smile. "Hopefully, I'm coming back here for another 20 years. If I don't figure it out on my 20th, there's something wrong."