When Adam Scott stepped up to the tee on Thursday morning at The Players Championship, the starter didn’t announce him as the Masters Champion. “It was the biggest disappointment of the day,” said a smiling Scott, who shot a respectable three-under 69 in his first round since winning the green jacket last month.
Rory McIlroy, who played with Scott and Steve Stricker, poked fun at his past record at TPC Sawgrass, saying he’d be announced as “coming off three missed cuts at The Players.” McIlroy has set himself up well to break that streak.
McIlroy, who celebrated his 24th birthday last weekend in Charlotte, started on the 10th tee and rolled in five birdies in his opening nine. He added another birdie on no. 2 and came in with a bogey-free, six-under 66. Not only was it the first time he posted a score in the 60s at The Players, it was the first time he shot under par here. His previous best was even-par 72, which he shot in 2010 and 2012.
The two-time major champ cruised to a top-10 finish at the Wells Fargo Championship and brought his solid ballstriking form to the PGA Tour’s flagship event. McIlroy hit 15 of 18 greens and 9 of 14 fairways (mind you, he didn’t pull his driver on the front nine) and needed 27 putts in his groundbreaking round at TPC Sawgrass.
“I think a little disappointed not to birdie the 9th hole, but apart from that, I played well,” said Rory, who is currently tied for second but trails leader Roberto Castro by three strokes. “I gave myself plenty of chances. Definitely could have been better, but I’m not complaining. It’s my first round under par on this golf course, so I’ll take anything I can get.”
McIlroy has the somewhat misconceived reputation of pulling driver on every hole, which hasn’t been the case this year. He’s maturing!
“I think I embrace the strategic element of it a lot more,” said Rory when asked for the reason he’s changed his opinion on this course. ”I was always one with these sort of courses, oh, I can’t hit driver anywhere. It doesn’t give me an advantage that I have on some other golf courses, but I embrace that now and embrace that challenge.”
Rory hit driver three times on Thursday — the 11th, 14th and 16th — which wasn’t the case in his previous starts at Sawgrass.
“Now I see why I don’t (hit driver on every hole),” said McIlroy. “There is no point in the par5s on the front nine, for example, there is no point hitting driver off either one of those for me, because I’m still going to reach the green with a 3-wood off the tee, if I want to.
“I’m playing 9 as a three-shotter this week; I don’t think I’ll go for the green once. And the 2nd hole I was still hitting iron in after hitting 3wood off the tee. It’s just these courses and this especially is just about getting your ball in play. Once you do that, you can the way I feel like I’m hitting my irons, I can take advantage of that.”
Stricker, who is almost twice as old as Rory at age 46, posted a fine five-under 67. Despite rolling in five birdies in the first 11 holes, Stricker couldn’t get the honor away from Rory because he also birdied those same holes.
Stricker clearly held his own, but complimented Rory and Scott’s games.
“I enjoy watching them,” he said. “They both have such great swings and demeanor on the golf course and a ton of talent. They’ve got so much offense. You know, I’ve got to do my things a little bit differently from how they do their things, but it’s still effective for me. But it’s fun to watch them how they can kind of get really aggressive and dominate some holes if they want to, just like Adam did on number 9. He just bombed it out there and hit iron in there. I hit my Sunday best off the tee, and I’ve got 250 to the front where I’m just laying up. It’s fun to watch them.”
Stricker and Rory chatted quite a bit during the round. What about? Stricker was curious about Rory’s tennis star girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki.
“I was asking a bunch of questions about her, just because my wife and daughter are into tennis and we watch tennis,” said Stricker. “I think we’re going to go to the U.S. Open Tennis this fall, so I asked how she prepares and what kind of workout regimens she has and what their days are like.
“Yeah, I don’t care about Rory. I was asking about Caroline.”
Meanwhile, Robert Castro fired a nine-under 63 and tied the record for low round at the championship set by a couple of Hall of Fame members, Greg Norman and Fred Couples. McIlroy and Zach Johnson are the the closest contenders, three shots off the pace.
Said Scott: “I was a little surprised when I teed off that someone was 5-under already. I thought it might play a little tougher than that. But it was ideal. There wasn’t even a breath of wind hardly the front nine.”
He was referring to Roberto Castro, who was five-under through 10 holes.
Castro is making his first start at TPC Sawgrass, which historically isn’t kind to rookies. Castro teed off on no. 10 and went on to birdie three of the toughest holes on the course, nos. 16, 17 and 18.
He credited his practice round on Wednesday with Matt Kuchar and Geoff Ogilvy.
“I just got the feel of going about their business and trying to figure out the golf course,” said Castro, whose best finish of the year was T16 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
“So I got into this mindset, and you know, on 17, I was nervous today. First time playing the hole; I’m sure even if it’s the 100th time you’re nervous.”
Castro said he’s been hitting the ball well the last few weeks, but his score hasn’t reflected his play because he hasn’t made enough putts.
“The last two weeks I’ve hit the ball really nicely,” he said. “I haven’t gotten the scores out of it, but lots of greens in regulation, lots of fairways hit, lot of quality shots, so I thought that would be a good thing coming into this week where you have to hit it nice and solid, nice and straight.”
Oh, you might be wondering how Vijay Singh is doing. Well, there was a guy wearing deer antlers in the gallery, so I guess that’s what he means by being “ridiculed.” Singh is one-over through four, fresh off filing a lawsuit against the PGA Tour.