Rory McIlroy, who has yet to make the cut in three appearances in the Players Championship, today found himself at the right end of the leaderboard for a change midway through his opening round at Sawgrass.
McIlroy’s scoring average of 74 in golf’s ’unofficial fifth major’ looked set to tumble after the world number two went to the turn in 31 thanks to five birdies and no bogeys.
Starting from the 10th, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland birdied the par-five 11th, 12th and 14th to stand three under par approaching the daunting closing stretch.
A pushed drive on the par-five 16th meant McIlroy was unable to reach the green in two, but after pitching to 20ft he rolled in the birdie putt and then struck a superb tee-shot to the island green on the famous par-three 17th.
The two-time major winner – without a win so far in 2013 after five victories around the world last year – converted the birdie putt from seven feet and added a par on the 18th to remain five under par.
That was three shots behind little-known leader Roberto Castro, who had also covered the back nine in 31 and then eagled the par-five second and birdied the fourth to reach eight under par.
Castro was two ahead of Casey Wittenberg with McIlroy and playing partner Steve Stricker on five under, while the third member of their group, Masters champion Adam Scott, was two under.
Scott admitted his head was still in the clouds after winning his first major title at Augusta last month, but the Australian had resisted the temptation to return home to celebrate as he chased further glory.
Another win on Sunday would earn the 32-year-old just over £1million from the £6million prize fund on offer, but 40 of the world’s top 45 players were in the field, including world number one Tiger Woods and defending champion Matt Kuchar.
Woods has won just once as a professional at Sawgrass and Kuchar will also have his work cut out to retain the title, with the last 20 events producing 20 different winners.