PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Rory McIlroy held up his end of the hype Thursday at the Players Championship with a 3-under 69 that put him two shots behind the early lead. Jordan Spieth was headed in the other direction by matching his worst score of the year.
”Just a really, really poor day,” Spieth said after making five bogeys in his round of 75.
Hideki Matsuyama, the 23-year-old from Japan who can get overlooked golf’s youth movement, had a 67 for a one-shot lead among the early starters in warm, sunny conditions on the TPC Sawgrass.
There was more energy than usual for a Thursday morning, especially with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson playing in the afternoon. McIlroy is No. 1 in the world and coming off a win at the Match Play Championship, while Spieth became the de facto challenger with a dominant Masters win that moved him to No. 2 in the world.
They warmed up next to each other on the range. And it was clear from the start this day would be a solid one for McIlroy, not so much for Spieth. Along for the ride was Jason Day, who isn’t exactly on the B-list. Day also had a 69, his day slowed by a double bogey on No. 18.
McIlroy stuck to a conservative plan and was rarely out of position. He hit out of a fairway bunker on No. 15 to 5 feet for birdie, and then launched a drive over the pines down the left side of the 16th to 7 feet for eagle.
”I think that’s what this course is all about,” McIlroy said. ”It’s about staying patient. There’s a lot of pars on my card, but I was able to pick off a couple of birdies and a nice eagle on 16. I’m happy with the start, for sure.”
Spieth felt something wrong with his alignment when he arrived Monday, and he still hasn’t sorted it out. He got behind quickly, and that didn’t help. After failing to save par from short of the green on No. 10 to start his round, he had to hit three wedges around the green and finally got up-and-down for bogey on the par-5 11th.
His second shot was left of the green in a grass bunker, the ball sitting so far down in the grass that Spieth walked up to it and said, ”You’ve got to be kidding me.” With a full, powerful swing, he advanced it some 50 feet – from a regular lie, that shot would have gone 110 yards – to just under the lip of a bunker. It was another bad lie, and he only advanced the next one 18 feet to the collar.
He turned birdie into bogey on the 16th with an approach just through the green and into thick rough, where he had to stand on the planks framing the water. The chip was soft and didn’t reach the green, and he took three shots from there.
”It’s just one of those days where I started maybe looking into it a little too much rather than just accepting it and going forward,” he said. ”It just happens every once in a while and I’ll get over it. I’m fortunate we have a lot of time before we tee off in his next round versus a quick turnaround. Just going to have to find some answers.”
Day had six birdies, a solid day except for one hole. He took on too much off the tee at the 18th and found the water, and then went well right into the gallery on his next tee shot. He didn’t get back to the fairway, and had to make a 25-foot putt to make double bogey.
Day, who is No. 7 in the world, said he felt like a third wheel considering the attention heaped on Spieth and McIlroy out there.
Matsuyama is not even that, hampered in America by his lack of communication. No one ever questioned his game, however, especially after winning the Memorial last year and finishing one shot behind in Phoenix this year. He gave himself ample chances and finished with a 12-foot birdie on the par-5 ninth.
”The key to this golf course, for me anyway, is to keep the tee shots in the fairway,” he said through a translator. ”Then score well on the back nine.” He missed only nine fairways and shot 33 on the back so the formula worked well.
Billy Horschel was among those at 68 from the morning group.
Gary Woodland, who lost in the final at the Match Play Championship on Sunday, opened with a 79. So did Brooks Koepka, who hit two balls into the water on the island green on No. 17 and then chopped up the 18th to end his back nine with consecutive quadruple bogeys. He was 1 under on the other 16 holes.