McIlroy aims to kick off Florida swing with win at PGA National

After an unusually wet and windy West Coast swing, the PGA Tour has made it to Florida, where four straight weeks of tournaments will kick off with the newly named Cognizant Classic on Thursday at PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Rory McIlroy headlines the field as he readies for a run of three straight weeks of competition. He’s won each of the next three tournaments before — the Cognizant (formerly Honda) Classic, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship — but is returning to PGA National for the first time since 2018.

The World No. 2 is a Northern Ireland native but now calls the Palm Beach area home.

“The tournament has struggled to attract a really strong field here the last number of years,” McIlroy said. “Then with a new sponsor coming in in Cognizant, I thought it would be a good time to step up and show some support for the tournament.”

McIlroy held off Tiger Woods to win this event in 2012, which propelled him to No. 1 in the world rankings for the first time in his career.

The course won’t be precisely the same this time around, as tournament organizers have made the 10th hole a 530-yard par 5 rather than a brutal 508-yard par 4. That changes the course’s par from 70 to 71, though that won’t matter much to players in the thick of the tournament.

“Whether someone shoots 11- or 15-under to win, you’re still having to get round in 269 shots over four days,” McIlroy said. “It’s a complete perception thing. Par is irrelevant in my eyes.”

World No. 9 Matt Fitzpatrick of England is in the field, as is longtime Florida resident and 2017 tournament champ Rickie Fowler.

Fowler caught fire last season and ended a lengthy drought by winning the Rocket Mortgage Classic in July before tying for 16th at the Tour Championship. But the fan favorite could do no better than a T35 in five starts in Hawaii, California and Arizona to start the new season.

“Never got anything going on the West Coast,” Fowler said. “I don’t think we exactly had the best weather, either. I’m not blaming it on that, but it definitely didn’t help me to get things going, so I’m excited to get things going back in Florida, which has been home for 15 years, at least trending and heading in the right direction. I’m ready to kind of get things going back how they were last year.”

The defending champion is Chris Kirk, who beat Eric Cole in a playoff last season. It was Kirk’s first win on tour in nearly eight years, as he had taken off much of 2019 to address alcoholism and mental health before reviving his career.

Kirk’s win helped him qualify for The Sentry, the season-opening signature event, which he won at 29 under.

“I think that my win here last year definitely helped me a lot on Sunday (at The Sentry) to be more comfortable where I was at and just to be able to stay aggressive and take it one step at a time,” Kirk said, “and definitely kind of gave me the belief that after not winning for a long time, it felt like this was where I was supposed to be.”

Other notables in the field include Jake Knapp, a rookie who won last week’s Mexico Open at Vidanta, and France’s Matthieu Pavon, the Farmers Insurance Open winner and surprise FedEx Cup leader.