Crammed summer will alter plans for top pros

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Poor rounds are inevitable, even acceptable at times in professional golf, and Rory McIlroy knew Thursday would require a few baby steps in the big picture. He's not played much golf of late.

Actually, hardly at all.

McIlroy got off to a poor start in defense of his title at the Wells Fargo Championship, rallying for a 1-over-par 73 after starting with 40 over that back nine at Quail Hollow Club, where he shot 61 a year ago on his way to a 7-stroke victory.

But last year's tournament came a week after the Players Championship and two weeks following his victory at the WGC-Match Play.

And while summer golf is never a leisurely pursuit, this year promises to be an exhausting stretch for the game's top players, both mentally and physically.

"I think I played 18 holes in total since Augusta,'' McIlroy said prior to his pro-am round at Quail Hollow on Wednesday. "I took a little time off after (the Masters) to recharge the batteries a little bit. It was a pretty busy stretch up to Augusta.

"The reason I took three weeks off is I'm not going to have more than a week off until after the Ryder Cup. So until October it's going to be very busy.''

McIlroy, ranked third in the world, is hardly alone as the schedule is about to heat up right along with the weather when the PGA Tour moves to the Players Championship next week in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

During the next 21 weeks, both the PGA Tour and European Tour stage their flagship events; there are three major championships and a World Golf Championship event during that time; the staging of eight national Opens, including the Canadian Open; the Olympics; four FedEx Cup playoff events, including the Tour Championship. And then the Ryder Cup.

There are many choices, but also numerous must-play events -- or tournaments that all are expected to play, with some notable exceptions.

The Olympic golf event in Rio de Janeiro (Aug. 11-14) has been the reason for schedule-shuffling, forcing the move of the WGC-Bridgestone and the PGA Championship. And it has caused several high-profile players to withdraw, including Adam Scott.

"Fatigue played a part in my poor performance at the Masters,'' said Scott, who won twice in Florida and played six out of eight weeks. "My body just didn't swing the club the same way it was when I was much fresher earlier in that Florida Swing.

"So a lesson learned there. That was probably a little too much to tackle. I'm going to have to monitor that really closely the next few months through the PGA (Championship) and try and stay as fresh as I possibly can. The schedule is different for everyone, week off, week on, week off. It looks that way probably for a lot of guys. If you do want to not go week on, week off, then you add one in and all of a sudden you're playing a lot.''

Jordan Spieth is in the midst of his longest break since starting 2016 in Hawaii. He has taken four straight tournaments off since the Masters, but that changes in a big way next week, when he is set to return at the Players Championship, the first of four consecutive tournaments that includes two in Texas and then ends at the Memorial.

From that point on, Spieth is expected to go every other week with the U.S. Open, WGC-Bridgestone, The Open, the PGA, the Olympics and then the first FedEx Cup playoff event, which will be the first of three in a row. The Tour Championship follows an off week and then is followed by the Ryder Cup.

There is other scheduling angst beyond the Olympics. McIlroy is playing this week, the Players and then the Irish Open, which benefits his foundation. The following week is the European Tour's flagship tournament, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, an event McIlroy won two years ago but is skipping anyway.

He is also skipping the WGC-Bridgestone so he can play the European Tour's French Open, which is the same week.

"You can't play every week,'' McIlroy said. "You want to feel as fresh as you can for every tournament that you play, so I feel like it's the best way for me to approach it. And it's a busy summer, but I'm looking forward to all the opportunities.''

Rickie Fowler also has some tough decisions to make it. Although he has yet to make it official, it appears he will not defend his Scottish Open title the week prior to The Open at Royal Troon. The reason? It would mean playing five straight weeks, including two major championships.

Fowler has an endorsement deal with Quicken Loans so he will likely play that tournament the week after the U.S. Open. Then it's the WGC-Bridgestone. The Scottish Open offers a chance for a week off prior to The Open.

"This summer is going to be very hectic with some added events,'' Fowler said. "I think that's going to be a bit of a discussion in the same weeks after the Players. My main focus was getting through these weeks.''

One thing is certain: Golf fans will have plenty of opportunities to see the top players during the next several months.

But can those players maintain a high-level of play? It is inevitable that there will be periods of lackluster golf, as has been the case at times during the FedEx Cup playoffs.

McIlroy figures to be much more finely tuned in the coming days and weeks, but the lack of form now is meant to stave off burnout later.

"I knew I was going to have to sort of play my way into the next couple of weeks,'' he said. "It's always different when you get a scorecard in your hand and it really matters.''