PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Rory McIlroy didn't break par at The Players Championship until his fourth start in the highly regarded PGA Tour event.
The next step is having a chance to win it.
The four-time major champion has learned to love TPC Sawgrass — "learned to like," he quickly clarified with a smile — and he has taken small steps toward contention. The Stadium Course has a history of not favoring any single style of play, with the list of winners going from Greg Norman to Lee Janzen, from Tiger Woods to Craig Perks, from Henrik Stenson to Tim Clark.
"I felt like it handcuffed me," McIlroy said. "I felt like I was just being stubborn, trying to hit driver where there's no point in hitting driver. So I've learned to take it for what it is — a very positional golf course."
Attitude is everything in golf, especially on this Pete Dye-designed layout created on land that used to be a swamp.
McIlroy said he now looks forward to The Players Championship, even though he has yet to finish closer than within four shots of the winner. Much of that has to do with the water, though not the hazards found on the course.
"I started staying on the beach a few years ago," McIlroy said, "and that's made the event a lot more enjoyable."
McIlroy is not alone in his struggles. Jordan Spieth has gone the opposite direction. He nearly won the first time he played, avoiding bogey until his 59th hole and tying for fourth in 2014. That was also the last time he played on the weekend at Sawgrass.
"I just kind of assumed that it would come easy to me," Spieth said.
Dustin Johnson has never finished better than a tie for 12th. That was last year, and he had to close with a 68 to finish that high. Even more remarkable for the No. 1 player in the world is that he has shot in the 60s just three times in 30 rounds at this event.
It all starts to unfold today, the final time The Players Championship will be held in May after a 12-year run before returning to a pre-Masters date in March. The PGA Championship is moving from August to May next year, giving golf a run of big events from early spring to late summer.
Baylor School graduates Harris English, Luke List and Keith Mitchell are all in the field.
The star attraction today is Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods paired in the same group for the first time since the 2014 PGA Championship. This is only the second time they have played with each other on the Stadium Course. The other was the third round in 2001, when Woods holed a birdie putt from one end of the island green to the other on the par-3 17th and wound up winning the next day.
Woods has won twice at Sawgrass, where he has never missed the cut, but he has been perplexed by the Stadium Course, just like so many other golfers. He has finished out of the top 20 in just more than half of his appearances, some of those when he was the most dominant player in golf.
"There's no way of faking it around this golf course," said Woods, who won his first U.S. Amateur championship at Sawgrass in 1994. "The golf course negates a lot of different things. We're all playing from basically the same spots off the tees with our approach shots."
Mickelson has said of his 2007 victory, "I can't believe I won here."
The purse has been raised to $11 million, with the winner getting just less than $2 million for a week's work. The field is always among the strongest — last year, only the three full-field majors had a higher-rated field.
And while it has an all-star roster of champions, equally impressive is the list of players who haven't won. That includes the current top five players in the world, all of whom have a mathematical chance to be No. 1 by the end of the tournament.
But first they have to figure out Sawgrass.