Rory McIlroy’s first appearance in the Players Championship ended in a missed cut and being kicked out of nearby bars for having a fake ID card.
Eleven years on, the 30-year-old returns to Sawgrass as the world number one and aiming to create history by becoming the first player to win golf’s so-called “unofficial fifth major” for two years in a row.
“I’m glad to be back,” McIlroy told a pre-tournament press conference. “This week last year was huge for me in terms of getting the monkey off my back a little bit.
“I’d had a few close calls and wasn’t able to walk through the door and claim a win. I was able to do it here and went on to have a great year and won a few more times.
“There are a lot of similarities between this year and last year in terms of how I’ve played the first few events of the year. I’ve given myself some chances, haven’t quite been able to capitalise and it would be wonderful to replicate what happened last year.
“It is an opportunity for sure. I don’t think you ever need extra motivation when you come to this tournament, but to be the first one to defend here would be very cool.”
Recalling his debut in 2009, when he had just turned 20 a few days earlier, McIlroy added: “The first year I played here, the weekend before I was in Vegas for a fight and then probably didn’t prepare the best way possible.
A tie for fifth in last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational saw McIlroy join Tiger Woods as the only players in the last 20 years to record seven straight top-five finishes on the PGA Tour, a streak stretching back to last season which includes two wins.
However, the four-time major winner admits there are good top fives and bad ones, with the Sunday’s at Bay Hill belonging in the latter category.
“I’d say last week was a bad top five,” McIlroy added. “I took advantage of a good draw, I got out early on Thursday morning and shot 66 and then sort of hung on for the rest of the week.
“There’s other weeks where you just don’t have it at all and just hang in there, struggle all week and scrape it around in 70 or 69 for four days and end up finishing T5.
“I finished fifth at Torrey Pines last year and I swear it was one of the best top fives I’ve ever had. I walked away from that week just thinking I couldn’t have squeezed anything more from my golf game at the end of the week.”
McIlroy has now spent a total of 100 weeks as world number one and although that is a long way from Tiger Woods’ record of 683, he is understandably pleased to have regained top spot for the first time since September 2015.
“I’m very proud to think that I’ve spent two years of my career at the top of the world rankings,” McIlroy added. “I can’t fathom 683 (weeks), it’s unbelievable. I don’t think anyone can speak highly enough of what Tiger did over that stretch of golf. It’s just insane.
“On the Sunday night at Riviera I made sure to go out and have a couple of drinks with Harry (Diamond, his caddie) and a couple of my friends, especially for Harry because he took over in the middle of 2017 and we’ve been on that journey from injuries and not playing my best all the way back to the top of the world.”