Rory McIlroy kicked off his Players Championship victory quest with only his second sub-70 TPC Sawgrass start and then downplayed any threat of burnout in competing for five straight weeks up to and including the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
The World No 1 muscled his way to a clubhouse share of fifth place with a three under par 69 that was highlighted in driving the green at the par five, 16th hole and then holing a seven-foot eagle putt.
It left McIlroy lying just two strokes adrift of Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama with three Americans, including FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel, tied in second spot on four under par.
Tied with McIlroy was playing partner Jason Day of Australia while Masters Champion Jordan Spieth, and the third member of the group, struggled with a three over par 75.
It was Spieth’s highest round since a similar 75 on the first day of the March WGC – Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral.
Despite arriving a little late to his first tee there was no real concern for McIlroy missing just two fairways in regulation and needing just 27 putts.
“This course is all about staying patient and even though there was a lot of pars on my card, I was able to pick off a couple of birdies, at my sixth and 17th holes, and a nice eagle on 16 or my seventh,” he said.
“So I am very pleased with the start.”
There was clearly a lot of chat between McIlroy, Spieth and Day and while Day disclosed they had talking at one stage about cars, McIlroy revealing they chatted also about hair styles.
“It was funny talking about sort of different hair styles or something like that but anyway, I said to Jordan, you have a green jacket, your hair can be whatever you want it to be.”
McIlroy confirmed on the eve of the event he will contest next week’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow and the venue of his maiden PGA Tour triumph in 2010 and when you add the following week’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and the following week’s Irish Open, it is a run of five tournaments in succession for the 26-year old.
“No, I’ve got no reservations at all playing five in a row,” he stated.
“I feel like I am playing well, so I wanted to get on a stretch of golf. Also I was sitting with my parents at their place in Palm Beach the week before the Match-Play and we were watching TV coverage of the event in New Orleans and I saw that I was like in the hundreds in the FedEx Cup standings.
“I was like I have only played four events, but then I want to get myself up there so that’s what I am doing. I’ve got this week and then next week, before I go back to Europe.
“So I want to improve my ranking in the FedEx Cup and really get up there and it was a good start last week.
“Then after the Irish Open I will have two weeks off and plenty of time to recover and get ready for the US Open at Chambers Bay.”
However since McIlroy’s 10th PGA Tour success last week in San Francisco, he is now riding high in 19th place on the FedEx Cup table.
Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell are grouped together for a first time that neither could remember and with Harrington bouncing back from dropping three shots in two holes mid-round to post a one under par 71.
However Harrington, who says he needs a top-six finish to qualify for next month’s US Open, was left ruing a poor day on the green in taking 33 putts.
“I had a shocking day on the greens with a couple of three-putts and while the greens were much quicker, I just missed a few short putts,” he said.
“I hit it really close all day but then three-putting from five feet at holes like the third of my 12th hole doesn’t help.”
Three-putting the famed island green 17th was among those while he found water left off the tee at the next to be out in two over but then completing his inward nine in three under highlighted by three birdies in succession from the fourth or his 13th hole.
“I know what I need to work on this afternoon and it won’t be on my chipping not that I had many chips today and in fact, I can’t recall having one chip despite spending much of my practice rounds on my chipping so there you go,” he said.
McDowell’s contesting his eighth Players Championship and in an event where he’s not finishing higher than T26th five years ago.
He got his round off to a great start with back-to-back birdies but then found himself at one over with three straight bogeys.
McDowell then went 13 holes in even par with a 14th hole birdie and a bogey at his 16th.
“It was great playing with Pádraig and he’s hitting the ball great, and you see there’s a new spring in his step after having won a second Honda Classic a few weeks back,” said McDowell.
“As for my own game it was a day of just grinding away but my assessment is that I am not taking my good stuff on the practice range onto the golf course proper.
“But it’s all work in progress and I’m just chipping away and trying to get some confidence going.”
Shane Lowry’s Players debut went off with a splash but the not in the manner he sought when he found the water short of green at the 17th to take a double bogey on route to an eventual one over par 73.
Unfortunately, Darren Clarke is returning home after battling with a right wrist injury he picked on the range ahead his round and managing only 11 holes to be 10-over par.
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