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Less than a month before the start of the season’s first major championship, the 2023 Masters, Rory McIlroy does not sound happy about the biggest weapon in his game. After signing for an opening-round 76 at the Players Championship, he bemoaned where his tee shots put him at TPC Sawgrass.

“I feel like this is as penal as I’ve seen it out of the rough for a long time,” McIlroy said. “I think you’d have to go back to when the tournament was played in May, when we were in Bermuda rough, for it to be as penal as that. Yeah, you don’t hit it on the fairway here, you’re going to struggle.”

McIlroy hit only six of 14 fairways in the first round, and while he averaged 323 yards per tee shot, he explained that just four weeks before the start of the Masters, he is not satisfied with his driver.

“Obviously, I went to that new driver at Riviera, and it’s just not … yeah,” he said, implying that the performance from the TaylorMade Stealth 2 Plus+ he put into play three weeks ago is not quite right.

“Look, I wish I could use my driver from last year, but I can’t just because [if] you use a driver for so long, and it starts to get a little too … basically it just wouldn’t pass the test.”

Last season McIlroy used a TaylorMade Stealth Plus+ driver and the test he referred to measures Characteristic Time (CT), which is how long the ball stays in contact with the club face. The longer the time, measured in microseconds, the more significant the trampoline-like effect of the hitting area and the faster the ball comes off it.

The USGA and R&A limit CT to 238 microseconds and test clubs to ensure they don’t exceed the limit, but over time and with high-speed use, drivers that initially pass the test can fatigue and get more springy. When that happens, the CT gradually elevates — a situation referred to as CT Creep — until it exceeds the allowable limit, which makes the club non-conforming and illegal for use.

“They [the USGA] were testing drivers at Riviera, but I just didn’t even want to take the chance,” McIlroy said, implying that he worried his old driver might fail a CT test. “I just was not comfortable knowing that it could fail. [It] doesn’t look good on me, doesn’t look good on TaylorMade.”

If this sounds like something familiar, you might be recalling the incident that happened to Xander Schaufelle before the start of the 2019 British Open at Royal Portrush. Before that tournament, the R&A randomly tested 30 drivers and tested their coefficient of restitution (COR), another measure of springiness, and Schauffele’s Callaway driver exceeded the limit. Schauffele replaced it before the tournament started and there was never a penalty.

TaylorMade Stealth 2 Plus+ driver. (David Dusek/Golfweek)

“These driver heads are so finicky, it’s hard to get one exactly the same,” McIlroy said Thursday. “I mean, I’m obviously trying my best, trying to get something that’s as close to what I had last year. Yeah, just struggled a little bit off the tee the last couple weeks.”

While McIlroy may feel his driver is a bit off, the stats tell another story. This season, the four-time major winner ranks No. 1 in driving distance (327.6 yards), 10th in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee (0.800) and No. 1 in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green (2.28). He has not been accurate off the tee, however, hitting an average of just 52.68 percent of the fairways, which ranks 183rd on the PGA Tour.