Rory McIlroy tries to find form with new driver, opens with 76: ‘User error’

Rory McIlroy tries to find form with new driver, opens with 76: ‘User error’
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Rory McIlroy hacked his way out of thick rough for much of the first round Thursday at TPC Sawgrass, where he opened with a 4-over 76 on what was a favorable day for scoring.

McIlroy’s surprising score to start this Players Championship was his highest on the PGA Tour in more than a year, since weekend 76s last March at Bay Hill.

Full-field scores from The Players Championship

The tone for opening day was set early, when McIlroy pushed his first 3-wood tee shot into the right rough on the 10th hole. From a gnarly lie in the overseeded ryegrass, he tugged his approach way left of the green, leading to an opening double bogey. In all, he just six of 14 fairways, some of them by wide margins to the right.

“I feel like this is as penal as I’ve seen it out of the rough for a long time,” he said. “You don’t hit it on the fairway here, you’re going to struggle.”

Afterward, McIlroy expressed some frustration that he hasn’t been able to dial in his latest driver, after a mid-tournament switch last month during the Genesis Invitational. He had been using the TaylorMade Stealth Plus since the beginning of 2022, but he said he preemptively changed models that week because he feared that his clubhead would creep over the allowable limit for spring-like effect and be deemed non-conforming during random testing.

“I wish I could use my driver from last year, but you use a driver for so long – basically, it just wouldn’t pass the test,” he said. “And these driver heads are so finicky, it’s hard to get one exactly the same.

“I’m obviously trying my best, trying to get something that’s as close to what I had last year. Just struggled a little bit off the tee the last couple weeks.”

At the time, McIlroy joked that he switched drivers at Riviera in part because Tiger Woods, his 47-year-old playing partner, blew a few balls past him.

“I was sick of Tiger outdriving me,” McIlroy said. “Partly to do with that.”

But McIlroy offered a fuller explanation after the first round at Sawgrass.

“They were testing drivers at Riviera, but I just didn’t even want to take the chance,” he said. “I just was not comfortable knowing that it could fail. Doesn’t look good on me. Doesn’t look good on TaylorMade.”

McIlroy said that the company’s newest model doesn’t have “a lot of left in it,” allowing him to eliminate that side of the course.

“This one is as close as it’s been,” he said. “There’s obviously a part of it that’s the user, as well. It’s quite a lot of user error in there, as well.”

Jon Rahm’s frustration was encapsulated by a three-putt at his final hole from 51 feet that included a lip out for birdie from 9 feet.

Though he hasn’t been as dominant as usual with his favorite weapon, McIlroy’s driving hasn’t been his biggest issue of late. He has still gained strokes off the tee in each of his four Tour starts this calendar year, and he did again Thursday (0.8 when he finished his round) in the opening round of the Tour’s flagship event.

Indeed, what has plagued him recently has been his putting. In the first round here he took 31 swipes, holed just 42 feet of putts and lost more than 2 ½ shots to the field, ranking 142nd out of 144. After ranking a career-best 16th on the greens last season, McIlroy is currently outside the top 150 on Tour.

“Just need to regroup and try and shoot a good one tomorrow to be around here for the weekend,” he said.

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