Is it possible for a golf course to be too hard?

The answer to that is yes.

We need no more evidence than that provided by Rory McIlroy, one of the best players in the world and one who seemed almost ready to give up the game after struggling through the final two rounds of last week’s tournament at Bay Hill.

“I feel punch-drunk, to be honest,” McIlroy said Sunday after following his Saturday 76 with another 76 in the final round. “It’s frustrating. It’s hard to keep your patience out there.”

More evidence? Only two players shot better than 70 Sunday, and six players were at 80 or worse. The day’s average was 75.4. Sound more like a weekend at your local course than a bunch of seasoned pros in a big-bucks tournament?

The critical comments from McIlroy and others after the tournament are noteworthy in part because they came at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and on a course the game’s king wanted to be a severe test. Palmer is an icon and a legend to virtually every professional who follows in his footsteps, and to offer critical commentary while standing on his ground isn’t easy for anyone.

But it got out of hand on the weekend.

The course was made tougher by higher and more pronounced rough.

“I don’t want to say anything that I’m going to regret,” McIlroy said Saturday, “but it’s … sort of what to expect coming here. It just seems to be this way over the weekend. It’s just hard. It’s hard not to get frustrated.”

To be fair to the course setup, swirling winds made things tougher Saturday and even tougher Sunday. 

The winner, Scottie Scheffler, is a player on a dramatic rise, and he gained even more respect over the weekend by trudging through awful conditions to emerge in front. His Saturday score of 68, with three birdies and an eagle on the back nine, was a total most would compare to a 62 or so on a “normal” day.

Scheffler described Sunday’s setup as harder than Saturday’s, but he persisted and closed out the tournament with a birdie and six straight pars, excellent play under the conditions.

“I thought they’d take it a little bit easier on the golf course [Sunday], but the setup was harder today than it was yesterday, which surprised me a little bit,” Scheffler said.

The course setup was compared to the brutal conditions that usually confront players at the U.S. Open, where shorter golfers have been known to disappear into the rough.

After escaping Bay Hill, the players move on to TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida this week to face another big test. It’s the annual Players Championship, regarded by many as the “fifth” major and home to the par 3 17th hole with the famous island green.

That tee shot, viewed by thousands in a stadium setting, is a nerve-wracking one, but numerous players view the par 4 18th as a tougher hole.

“I would argue 18 is scarier than 17,” McIlroy said. “You’ve got to commit. … It’s an intimidating tee shot. It’s what Pete Dye does with his golf courses. He makes it very visually intimidating.”

On the plus side, McIlroy probably won’t be “punch-drunk” after playing Sawgrass.

Mike Hembree

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist who has covered a variety of sports for numerous publications and websites, including USA Today, Fox Sports, TV Guide and The Greenville (S.C.) News. He has written 14 books and has won numerous writing awards at the national, regional and state levels. He is a seven-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.