Rory McIlroy and his caddie Harry Diamond return to iconic TPC Sawgrass this week to defend the Players Championship after edging 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk by a one-stroke margin a year ago.
McIlroy put some off-the-charts golf on display at the Pete Dye monster a year ago. Early in Friday’s second round, he caught fire going 7 under in a nine-hole stretch, highlighted by a mid iron hit hole high to 10 feet on the par-5 16th. After converting the eagle putt, McIlroy made a bomb for birdie on 17, which tied him for the lead with Tommy Fleetwood. The two Ryder Cup teammates would enter the weekend tied at 12 under.
Though Jon Rahm took the lead into Sunday, McIlroy took all of one hole in the final round to get back into a share.
McIlroy’s 16 under winning score for the week was the second-best over the past nine Players Championships, behind only Webb Simpson’s 18 under mark in 2018.
How rewarding was arguably the biggest McIlroy win since Harry Diamond’s been on the bag?
“Wow, it was great,” Diamond told The Caddie Network. “Obviously it’s not a major, but it’s certainly the next-best thing. Rory was obviously playing well going into that stretch. He finished well at Bay Hill (T6), too.”
That finish at Bay Hill served as the ninth consecutive time he had played in the final grouping and failed to win, a streak which McIlroy finally broke at the RBC Canadian Open last June.
But winning The Players got McIlroy back in the win column for the first time in a year.
“I obviously feel lucky that Rory’s seemingly always in the hunt out here (on Tour),” Diamond smiled.
And Rory even got in the mix as recently as last week at Bay Hill, where he stretched his streak of top 5s to start 2020 to four without winning, and seven overall. He did win the WGC-HSBC Champions last November, part of the 2019-20 PGA Tour schedule.
Last year, Rory entered The Players in a similar situation: off a streak of top 6s without a win in his previous five starts. Like last year, McIlroy had a disappointing final round to lose at Bay Hill
McIlroy’s win at last year’s Players helped him get his 2019 into gear, a season that ended in PGA Tour Player of the Year honors.
“It was really nice to get the win at the Players, the first win of the season before the Masters and it kickstarted a great year,” Diamond said. “And he’s been on a roll ever since.”
During a week where the then world No. 6 showed full command of his game, Diamond was particularly impressed by a couple key shots from his boss on that final Sunday.
Remember, Furyk had gone out early and posted the clubhouse lead at 15 under. McIlroy teed off on 15, one back and had 178 yards from the fairway bunker on the par 4.
For Diamond, what came next is one of his favorite images of the week.
“(My highlight) has to be that second shot on 15 out of the bunker, he cut a 6-iron in there, over the pin and holed the putt. That was probably the best shot he hit all year.”
McIlroy stuck his shot and then backed out of the bunker anxiously as the ball travelled to hole high and about 15 feet. McIlroy unleashed two fist pumps as the putt dropped taking him into a share of the lead with Furyk.
“Then there’s the drive on the 18th,” Diamond remembers from that final round.
One of the most nerve-wracking drives in all of pro golf with water along the left and his boss was clinging to a slim one-shot lead. McIlroy delivered a crucial drive 290 yards down the middle.
“Those were two of the best shots he hit all year,” Diamond said.
As we enter this year’s Players Championship, Diamond’s third as McIlroy’s caddie, he’s pin-pointed one crucial challenge when it comes to caddying at TPC Sawgrass.
“The wind, for sure, it swirls from everywhere,” Diamond said. “When you hear the general direction it gives to you for the day, you’re better off just going by where you feel it on each shot because it swirls so much. So I’d probably say that. I would go more by what you feel, so if you feel a gust coming in, I would say just go with that rather than if the general direction is the wind’s to be off the right.”
The wind also comes into play on the signature closing stretch of the par-5 16th, the par-3 17th hole, and finishing par-4 18th.
“Yeah there’s a good buzz obviously at 16, 17, 18 with all the water and the massive crowds,” Diamond said. “You know 17 is probably one of the best holes of the entire year. Just for the adrenaline and all the comes with it. It’s pretty cool to experience it.”
What does it feel like when your player’s ball is in the air, and the title on the line as it was for Diamond and McIlroy last year?
“Oh man, you don’t know if it’s going to be short or long,” Diamond concedes. “It’s such an easy shot to hit into the middle of the green, but the way the wind blows there and swirls, you never know until it’s on dry land (laughs).”
McIlroy converted a par there last year that gave him a one-shot lead heading into 18.
The then 29-year-old stuck his second shot tight and two-putted for a tournament-clinching par.
After all the handshakes, Diamond handed McIlroy the scorecard and took his putter and the two old friends embraced. Diamond slapped Rory on the back as the star capped off his 15th Tour win.
Diamond and McIlroy celebrated with a couple drinks in the famous clubhouse at Sawgrass that night, and why not?
Their hard work was the beginning of something special.