It is a long time since Steve Stricker sank six birdies without ever claiming the honour, the price of playing alongside Rory McIlroy on a good day.
McIlroy opened with a 66 at The Players, his best round in a tournament at which he has yet to make the cut. It will take a wisdom tooth attack of Honda Classic proportions to prevent him having a run at this weekend.
McIlroy was at his imperious best playing alongside masters champion Adam Scott and Stricker. Only one green missed in regulation to the turn by this threeball, McIlroy at the tenth, his opening hole. He chipped it dead, so no big deal. All three birdied the next two holes, thereafter McIlory and Stricker pulled away, mirroring each other to the turn with further birdies at 14, 16 and the signature par-three 17. Stricker curled one down the hill from 30 feet for his birdie. McIlroy, after a stunning tee shot, tapped in from inside six feet.
With the temperatures climbing into the low 80s and no wind to speak of, Sawgrass rolled over. Roberto Castro, in his second year on the PGA Tour and a Players debutant, smashed a 63 to equal the course record and establish a three-shot lead on day one. His iron play was freakish, hitting four approaches to within two feet of the pin and six within five feet. He didn’t have a putt outside ten feet. As he left the scorers hut he was signing autographs with a wedge.
McIlroy and Stricker were at it again at the second hole, their 11, a sixth birdie taking them into second place. Stricker fell out of step with a bogey at the fourth and settled for a 67, two better than Scott. Not only did the honour escape him, he was routinely 40 yards in arrears off the tee. “They both have such great swings and a ton of talent. They have so much offence. I have to do my things a little bit differently to how they do theirs.”
There is a poetry associated with the way McIlroy violates a golf ball. He is not the tallest, nor the biggest, but, as Stricker says, the swing is among the sweetest motions in the game and propels the ball immense distances. Around the greens he just makes the ball dance. His chip at the tenth stopped dead. At the 12 it checked impressively after landing on a downslope and rolled to five feet. To the greenside galleries this constitutes golfing magic, rabbits conjured from hats using skills beyond their comprehension.
McIlroy’s inward nine was just as impressive in terms of his ball-striking, but the putts stayed up. Fractions. He had six single putts going out. Not enough coming back. It wouldn’t do to have his sweets all at once. “I’m really happy with the way I played. I gave myself a lot of chances. If you keep doing that you are going to shoot some good scores. I just need to keep doing that,” McIlroy said. “This course is just about getting your ball in play. The way I’m hitting my irons if I get it in play I’m confident of scoring around here.”
Last week Derek Ernst won in only his eighth event. None saw him coming from a ranking outside the top 1200. It is fair to say few were looking at Castro’s name when the draw was made. “There are a lot of good players out here. It gets proven every week. Derek Ernst won last week and no-one had ever heard of him,” Castro said.
Castro and McIlroy were done by the time Tiger Woods appeared. A birdie at the second did not ignite the outward nine as it might. Woods was quiet until he popped a birdie at the ninth. Three holes later after successive birdies he was rattling along at five under par. He reached six under at 16 but a duffed chip at the last led to a bogey and a 67.
Lee Westwood missed birdie putts from four feet at the first, eighth and tenth. You could almost see the smoke coming out of his ears in frustration. Just as well he ripped three birdies in the last four holes to make himself feel a little better. “I made some nice putts in the last few holes. So I’m happy with the way things are going,” Westwood said.
Padraig Harrington opened with a 68, Graeme McDowell a 69 with Justin Rose and Luke Donald level and needing a better day with the putter to stay in the tournament. Ian Poulter needs a miracle on three over par.