Rory McIlroy has a lot of birdies, a little drama and a share of The Players lead

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Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, points to near where his shot went into the water on the 18th hole during the first round of The Players Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Rory McIlroy had a lot of birdies and a little drama Thursday in The Players Championship. All that mattered to him was having a share of the lead at the TPC Sawgrass.

McIlroy tied The Players Championship record with 10 birdies, offset by two tee shots into the water, for his lowest start ever at the PGA Tour's flagship event. He had a 7-under 65 to share the lead with U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark and Xander Schauffele.

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Schauffele played bogey-free with a two nervous moments toward the end of his round, one leading to birdie and another for an unlikely par save. Clark, already a winner at Pebble Beach this year, came on strong with three late birdies.

McIlroy tied the tournament record of 10 birdies, last done by Cameron Smith in the final round when he won in 2022. And to think he had tee shots on the 18th and the seventh hole that he pulled into water.

“It would be nice to shoot 62 and not have two in the water,” he said.

The drama came not from the shots, but where to take his penalty drop. There were questions from Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland on the 18th — their ninth hole of the day — but that was sorted out and McIlroy ripped a 3-wood onto the green and escaped with bogey.

It was on the seventh hole that Hovland and Spieth wanted some clarity on whether the tee shot was above or below the red hazard line. That would be the difference of having to drop back by the tee or where it went into the water. Television replay didn't make it entirely clear.

There was one tense moment when Spieth said, “Everyone I'm hearing that had eyes on it ... is saying they were 100 percent certain it landed below the line.”

“Who's everybody, Jordan?” replied McIlroy's caddie, Harry Diamond.

“Who are you talking about?” McIlroy added.

McIlroy was comfortable in saying it was above the line, played short of the green and wound up making double bogey.

“I think Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing,” McIlroy said. “I was pretty sure that my ball had crossed where I was sort of dropping it. It’s so hard, right? Because there was no TV evidence. I was adamant. But I think, again, he was just trying to make sure that I was going to do the right thing.”

Spieth had his own issues and posted a 74, leaving him in danger of missing the cut at The Players for the sixth time in 10 years. Hovland took double bogey on his final hole for a 73.

Big drama on the course was otherwise limited, except for a few rounds in the 80s, none with outrageous numbers, just the typical punishment Sawgrass can inflict without warning.

Schauffele thought he was headed for the water with drive to the right on the fifth hole, only for it to narrowly stay in the rough. He hit the next one to 2 feet. Then on the seventh, he was deep in the trees and hammered an 8-iron out of trouble, over water and a big bunker, and onto the fairway.

“I would not want to hit that shot again,” said Schauffele, who then hit a beautiful pitch to 5 feet to save par.

Calm weather by Florida standards in March and a soft Stadium Course made the opening round perhaps as easy as it will get all week. There also was a front pin on the island-green 17th, where Ryan Fox made a hole-in-one. It was third straight year at The Players that someone made an ace on the fabled hole.

“It's such an iconic hole, and it’s an intimidating shot,” Fox said. “I don’t care who you are. You get up there, most of the crowd probably either wants you to make a 1 or hit it in the water, so I’m glad to be on the right side of it in that respect.”

There also was very little separation.

Nick Taylor kept bogeys off his card for a 66 and was joined by former U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick, who had one of 12 eagles on the par-5 16th.

Another shot back was Scottie Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the world coming off a commanding performance last week in winning at Bay Hill. He missed only two fairways and three greens, and except for a three-putt bogey at the start, made it look easy.

Stress-free, no.

“This golf course is probably never easy," Scheffler said. “There may be a few easy holes here and there, but overall I think it's a pretty challenging place to play.”

The average score was about 71.5 when play was suspended by darkness. Among those who have to finish the opening round Friday morning was Jimmy Stanger, who was 5 under with two to play. Stanger was the last player to get into the 144-man field, a consequential gift when Tiger Woods did not enter.

“I might be the only guy who was happy when Tiger decided not to play,” Stanger said.


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