Rory McIlroy searching for answers ahead of PLAYERS Championship showdown

The Northern Irishman is wrestling with both the mental and physical side of his game after a Sunday slide at Bay Hill saw him drop out of the top 10 in the world rankings

For Rory McIlroy, the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida threw up more questions than answers.

A tied 10th place finish - his fifth straight top 10 at Arnie's event - suggested this was just another good performance at Bay Hill. And beyond that, a nice way to set him up for this week's prestigious PLAYERS Championship at Sawgrass where he won the most recent edition in 2019.

But packaging it that way is just one position to take.

After 18 holes at Bay Hill, McIlroy was tied for the lead. After 36 he was in a share of third place and just two back. But when he went to hit the accelerator on the weekend, there was little response.

True, the tougher weather didn't help his cause. On Sunday, the scoring average ballooned to 75.49 so a kinder viewer can be taken of Rory's closing 76. But playing 'average' golf in round four isn't going to win tournaments.

For McIlroy, top fives and top 10s keep the dollars piling up. That isn't satisfactory for a player of his calibre though. He needs the wins.

And, as for world rankings, perhaps Bay Hill may just be a much-needed jolt. Because of the machinations of the OWGR, Rory dropped three spots despite a decent performance at the API. It means he's now outside the top 10 for the first time since March 2018.

Here's a stat that bodes well however. The last time he dropped out of the top 10 back in 2018, Rory went out and won his next event. That was the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

As usual, the 31-year-old wasn't batting away any questions when interviewed after his Sunday slump. Instead, he was introspective, digging deep for answers.

So will he be able to produce another dose of magic at Sawgrass this week?

He's one of the favourites: Paddy Power make McIlroy 12/1 joint-second best alongside Bay Hill winner Bryson DeChambeau while World No.1 Dustin Johnson tops the betting at 10/1.

But as he gears up for his bid to win at Sawgrass for a second time, McIlroy has some issues to deal with in both the mental and physical departments of the game.

Rory's stats at Bay Hill

Birdies: 16 (13th)

Bogeys: 11 (69th)

Double bogeys: 1 (29th)

Strokes Gained: Off The Tee: 0.214 (46th)

Strokes Gained Approach: 3.764 (12th)

Strokes Gained: Around The Green: -0.480 (46th)

Strokes Gained: Putting: 3.702 (14th)

Strokes Gained: Tee To Green: 3.495 (25th)

Analysis: Rory's driving wasn't up to its usual standard (he's 3rd on the season-long Off The Tee stats) while he recorded negative SG: Putting figures in both weekend rounds when it mattered most. However, top 15 for Approach stacks up well against his season ranking of 87th.

Rory McIlroy in consultation with caddie Harry Diamond
Rory McIlroy in consultation with caddie Harry Diamond

On the state of his game going into THE PLAYERS Championship

"Yeah, I feel okay. There was some good parts this week again. Some stuff that I'm sort of, I don't know what the word is or how to describe it, but just a little dejected or… I don't know, like, maybe like maybe looking to go in a different direction. I don't know. I need something, I need a spark, I need something and I just don't seem to have it. Some days it's good, some days it's not. So I'll get up there tomorrow, get some practice in and get ready for next week."

On thought processes hampering him

"There's quite a lot going through my head. You can't play golf like that. It doesn't need to be perfect - and I realise that - but you just want your bad shots, your bad swings, to not be destructive. Over the past few weeks, those bad swings have just been a little too destructive and put me in some bad positions. So I need to play with more freedom and I need to be able to swing away."

On the frustrations of not being able to get more time to work with long-time coach Michael Bannon

"I'd love to just go and immerse myself in it for like two or three weeks and get it done but with the schedule, it just isn't going to work like that. It's just going to be a process over the next few months to tease it back into the place I want it to get to."

Rory McIlroy didn't drive the ball as well as usual at Bay Hill
Rory McIlroy didn't drive the ball as well as usual at Bay Hill

On having fans back at Bay Hill and again next week at TPC Sawgrass

"Yeah, I mean, I'm really happy that we played this week in this sort of atmosphere and this environment. I've missed this a lot. Even though it's only, whatever, 25 percent capacity this week, it feels so much more than that and it's great to play in front of that. I'm looking forward to doing it again next week.

"I think that it is, I think we're all sort of now seeing a light at the end of the tunnel where things can at least get back to some sort of normality pretty soon. But, yeah, I mean I can't believe it's been a year. It's going to be surreal looking back in 20 years time and sort of seeing what we lived through. But, yeah, I'm just looking forward to things going back to normal."

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