Rory McIlroy finds that old magic to throw down a challenge at The Players in Sawgrass

World No 2 in fine form to card six under par in the first round of the Players Championship

Sawgrass

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.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week