PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Rory McIlroy is playing his most consistent golf since the end of 2011 and the start of 2012, when he finished no worse than third in nine out of 12 tournaments worldwide with two victories, the latter in the Honda Classic that put him at No. 1 in the world for the first time.
The difference is winning.
His tie for sixth last week at Bay Hill was his worst finish in five starts on the PGA Tour this year. McIlroy preaches patience, and the real measure will be at the Masters next month when he tries to complete the career Grand Slam.
What really stands out is that Bay Hill was the ninth time in his last 30 tournaments dating to 2018 that he played in the final group without winning.
"I'm playing well. I would much rather be putting myself in position to have a chance to win," McIlroy said after he closed with a 72 at Bay Hill. He started the final round one shot behind Matt Fitzpatrick and wound up four shots behind Francesco Molinari.
"It doesn't matter if I'm playing that golf on Thursday, Friday, Saturday ... yeah, my Sundays haven't been what I would have liked," McIlroy said when pressed about his chances from the final group. "But I'm putting myself in that position. So good golf is good golf. I keep saying that at the end of the day."
Some context is required.
Of those nine times in the final group, he was at least three shots behind in five of them. The only time someone came from further back to win on those occasions was at Kapalua, where Xander Schauffele closed with a 62.
The others were against Dustin Johnson in Mexico, Tiger Woods at the Tour Championship, Justin Thomas at Firestone and Patrick Reed at the Masters.
Bay Hill was the only time McIlroy didn't break par in the final round.
Still, he had his chances. The turning point was on the fourth hole, right after McIlroy made a 25-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead. He had a 5-foot birdie putt that he missed. He missed another birdie chance on the par-5 sixth, and the hole started shrinking.
He managed only two birdies in the final round.
Next up is The Players Championship, a real test for McIlroy. He has missed the cut four times in nine appearances.
"That's the great thing about golf," McIlroy said. "You don't have to wait too long to get back on the horse."
Jason Day made it through only six holes at Bay Hill before withdrawing with a bad back. He's ready to go at The Players Championship after consulting a doctor, getting four cortisone shots around the spine and keeping his calm after social media reacted to a photo of Day at Disney World with his kids.
Day said his back first acted up when he was at the TPC Sawgrass a few weeks, and it locked up on the Sunday before Bay Hill. He had therapy all week and thought playing might loosen it up. Day said injections Thursday alleviated much of the pain.
And then came the trip to Disney.
He said the doctor he saw in West Palm Beach did not want him laying around, so he took his children to a theme park, where someone took a photo of him from the side. He was panned on social media as a player who couldn't walk and then goes to Disney.
"Heaven forbid I enjoy a day with my family, and I was there half a day walking around," Day said. "He didn't want me to lay down. He just wanted me to walk around, stay on my feet, kind of get things loose, and then after that I went and saw my physio at the golf course. Obviously, those four needles have helped a lot, and I'm looking forward to getting this week underway."
Day said he was cautiously optimistic about the week, his road to the Masters and beyond.
PGA Tour records indicate he has withdrawn at least eight times, and this was the first since the Tour Championship in 2016. Day said he has had back issues since he was 13, and the familiarity breeds some level of contempt.
"The hard thing about injuries is that no matter how many times you've had them, it feels like your world's ending," he said. "It honestly feels like, 'Is this going to be the last time that I'm going to pick up a golf club?' It's not great for you mentally to come back from an injury, so your confidence is hit a little bit. But overall I feel good about it."
Coming off one of his worst putting performances in Mexico, Tiger Woods asked for some outside help at The Players Championship. Kentucky-based Matt Killen was with during a nine-hole practice round. Woods knows him through Justin Thomas, who has used Killen for his putting since his freshman year at Alabama.
Killen also works with J.B. Holmes.
"I've seen Matt out here in the past year because he works with J.T. a lot and Matt has seen my stroke enough," Woods said. "I wanted him to take a look at it and see what he thought of where my setup looked like now versus all the times that I've putted well, and I've putted well with different postures throughout my career. I've done different things. But I wanted him to take a look at it, and then he mentioned a few things."
Thomas found one aspect to this humorous.
"A lot of people have found that he was my putting coach this week," Thomas said.
It's not the first time Woods has asked someone to look at him. He leaned on Steve Stricker in 2013 at Doral (which he won by two shots over Stricker). Mike Thomas, the father of Justin and a career club professional, once watched him during a practice round last year.
Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo once shared space in the 18th tower for ABC Sports as co-analysts with Mike Tirico. Faldo beat Azinger in the 1987 British Open at Muirfield, and Azinger got the better of him as Ryder Cup captains in 2008.
They will be together again at The Players Championship for a few hours Friday.
Tirico is hosting a show called "Vantage Point" that debuts Wednesday night, and he will serve as host during portions of Thursday and Friday rounds. The plan is for him to be joined in the booth Friday by Azinger and Faldo.
It will be the first time the trio is together as a broadcast group since the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie.
Sarah LeBrun Ingram, who played on three Curtis Cup teams and is a three-time winner of the U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur, has been appointed captain of the U.S. Curtis Cup team for 2020 at Conwy Golf Club in Wales. ... Kyle Williams, a six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills, and 2011 Louisiana Amateur champion Greg Berthelot have qualified for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship to be held May 25-29 at Bandon Dunes. ... Barbasol has signed a five-year extension to be title sponsor of the PGA Tour event in Kentucky held opposite the British Open.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Only 24 players in the 144-man at The Players Championship have played the tournament when it was held in March.
"I don't think there's many courses consistently that could fit my game much better. I think I honestly get too excited and too amped up and honestly over-prepared for it." — Justin Thomas on the Masters.