Birdie burst gives Graeme McDowell welcome boost at Sawgrass

Graeme McDowell produced a grandstand finish to finish in one under par 71 and an impressive opening to The Players Championship at Ponte Vedra last night.

The former US Open champion from Portrush badly needs a boost to a career that has lost much of its lustre over the past couple of years and some encouraging recent performances indicated that improvement was only just around the corner.

That hardly seemed to be the case when he mixed two birdies at the fifth and ninth on the way out with a couple of bogeys before a six at the long 11th saw him fall one over heading into one of golf’s most dangerous finishing stretches. To his credit, G-Mac birdied the short 13th and the water strewn par five 16th. However, the infamous short 17th with its island green and the equally dangerous 18th still lay in wait but he managed to par both to keep his hopes of a big finish very much alive.

Rory McIlroy was guilty of a golfing indiscretion at Sawgrass last night that should serve as a salutary lesson to the 28 year-old Down man as he tries to get his golfing season back on track after a number of off the course distractions.

McIlroy was struggling with a degree of rustiness and acclimatising himself with a new set of clubs and balls in the first round of the Players Championship, the so called “fifth major” when somehow getting through the opening nine holes in level par.

At the 10th, however, he pushed a nine foot par putt about 20 inches past the hole and without taking any noticeable care, missed the return as well. The double bogey left McIlroy two over par for the round and in a share of 94th place.

After all the excitement in his life over the past eight weeks, it was hardly surprising that his golf lacked the kind of edge so necessary for success over this demanding course at Ponte Vedra, Florida.

Not alone did he marry Erica Stoll in a much publicised yet private celebration at Ashford Castle but he also negotiated a reported $100m 10 year deal with TaylorMade to use their golf clubs and balls.

Just as he had problems adjusting to the Nike equipment when he signed a similar deal with them in 2013, McIlroy played a succession of wayward shots from favourable fairway positions.

He missed the seventh green well to the right and after a poor recovery did well to get down in two more to escape with a bogey five. Predictably, Rory made birdie at the long ninth only for the debacle at the 10th to seriously damage his prospects.

Shane Lowry was facing a similarly difficult uphill battle in trying to keep in touch with the leaders. Like McIlroy, he bogeyed the first, got the shot back at the second only to slip back at the eight to get out in one over 37. The homeward journey got off to another negative with a third concession at the 10th and he was four over after 13.

American William McGirt set the early pace with a five under par 67 when 72 was a popular return for several big names including defending champion, Australian Jason Day, 2015 winner Ricky Fowler and another former holder, Phil Mickelson.

Defending champion Day shrugged off a poor finish to his opening round as he targeted an achievement which proved beyond the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus.

Since the inception of the Players Championship in 1974 no player has successfully defended the title, with only six managing to win the prestigious event more than once.

Day’s prospects of creating history looked bright when he played his first 11 holes in five under par, but the 29-year-old Australian bogeyed three of his last four holes and had to settle for an opening 70.

“To be honest I’m not that disappointed,” Day told Sky Sports. “I played some good golf. Six, eight and nine were the only bad holes I played and they weren’t really that bad, but the rest of the game was pretty solid, so I’m pretty happy with it.

“It would be nice to be the first in history (to win back-to-back), but it’s day one, it’s going to be hot tomorrow and play tough the next three days, so I just have to slowly inch my way up the leader board and hopefully be in there Sunday.”

It was also a promising morning for a number of Europeans led by the talented Swede Alex Noren who showed no ill effects of a pretty dismal final round in the Wells Fargo Championship in North Carolina last week that cost him a first win on the lucrative PGA Tour. This time a 68 left him just him just one off the pace and nicely positioned.

Italy’s Francesco Molonari is another adapting nicely to life in the States and he shot 69 although Henrik Stenson’s inconsistency continued and he had to battle hard for even par 72. And that was one better than Jordan Spieth who had to settle for one over 73.


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