Can down-in-the-dumps Rory McIlroy win back-to-back at THE PLAYERS Championship?

The Northern Irishman defends his title at TPC Sawgrass this week, but needs to lift himself from a post-lockdown slump.

Is Rory McIlroy defending THE PLAYER Championship this week? Or is he not?

He was definitely the last man to lift the trophy in 2019 and the 2020 event was cancelled after just 18 holes of action.

It doesn't feel quite right to call him the defending champion, but nor is there an especially viable alternative.

It's a bit messy. A bit half-baked. All a bit flummoxed-by-Covid-lockdown-and-the-new-normal.

A bit like McIlroy himself, in fact.

As he readies himself for Thursday's first round he's all too aware that the consistency of 2019 and early 2020, fuelled by a new-found fondness for the philosophy of Stoicism, has morphed into a state that resembles a little boy lost.

All things are relative, of course.

World class golfers can find their A game very quickly and sometimes it's not promising form that prompts it but a rotten egg of an effort (something he delivered last Sunday).

So can McIlroy win this week at 14/1 (with Paddy Power)?

Let's take a closer look at his words to the media this week and the stats that matter.

McIlroy on his oddball defence of the title:

"It sort of feels weird, but at least I get another bite at the cherry. Last year was very surreal.

"I'm trying to rekindle the feelings and memories from two years ago. Hopefully that gives me the spark that I need to get my game in shape."

McIlroy's form before and after lockdown:

In 2019 and early 2020 McIlroy played 29 times and landed 23 top-10 finishes.

16 of those were top fives and he completed four wins.

In the period immediately after the return from lockdown he admitted to finding the lack of fans and extra protocols disruptive, and it showed.

In those first seven starts he only once finished in the top 30 and his best effort was T11th.

Since the end of August there has been an improvement: 12 starts, 11 of them T21st or better, but just two top five finishes in that tally.

McIlroy on that poor form:

On Sunday night he closed with a 76 at Bay Hill and despondently muttered about the need for change.

This week he admitted he had said that while still raw.

"I did feel dejected," he said. "I felt disappointed.

"One of the biggest things is, it's funny, I'd almost feel better if my game was worse.

McIlroy at his sweet-swinging best.
McIlroy at his sweet-swinging best.

"But it's the inconsistency. I shot 66 on Thursday and thought, I've got it, I feel really good, and then I didn't have it.

"The last few weeks, when it hasn't felt quite right, I'm sort of treading water. I need to get the bad golf a little better because the good golf is always there."

McIlroy's Sawgrass record and his thoughts on the course:

When the tournament was played in May he had mixed returns: four top 12 finishes, but also four missed cuts.

He didn't just like the change to a March date, however, he loved it and proved as much with the win two years ago.

"Being back to the original date has a nice feel to it. The golf course plays really well. The conditions out here this week are absolutely perfect."

McIlroy on Tiger Woods setting benchmarks:

It's not only the Northern Irishman who has endured a downturn.

Jordan Spieth appears to be getting through his, while Rickie Fowler is still stuck in the doldrums.

"When Jordan was having his run in 2015 and Rickie as well, no-one thought that, five years later, those guys would be outside the world top 50.

"Look, we've all been spoiled with Tiger. Tiger is the only one that's done it for a sustained period of time.

"He set a benchmark that is obviously ridiculously high. We might see it again. Never say never. But it's going to take something very special to emulate what he did."

This week:

Think McIlroy can ride the wave of good memories, retain the good golf and manage the bad? He's 14/1 with Paddy Power to win again.

If you prefer to believe he'll remain stuck in his current rut, the top 20 is available at 8/11.

Or maybe you think Sawgrass is a test too far at the moment? He's 3/1 to miss the cut.