McIlroy makes impressive start at Sawgrass
Opening 66 sees him right in contention at Players Championship
Rory McIlroy plays a shot from the 15th tee during round one of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy, who has yet to make a cut in three appearances in the Players Championship, today found himself at the right end of the leaderboard for a change after his opening round at Sawgrass.
McIlroy had a scoring average of 74 in golf’s ‘unofficial fifth Major’ coming into the $6million event, having failed to break par in any of his six competitive rounds. But that average has started moving in the right direction after the world number two carded a flawless six-under-par 66 to lie three shots behind surprise clubhouse leader Roberto Castro.
Castro, ranked 267th in the world, carded an eagle and seven birdies to match the course record of 63 set by Fred Couples in 1992 and equalled by Greg Norman two years later.
“It was a lot of fun,” Castro told Sky Sports 2. “First time around here I was pretty nervous on the 17th, but birdied 17 and 18 which got things rolling into the front nine. Something solid was what I was hoping for. I’m usually really good at getting myself way out of it and having to dig myself out of a hole.”
Starting from the 10th, McIlroy 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 the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland 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 be out in 31. McIlroy missed from 12ft for another birdie on the first, but picked up a shot on the par-five second after coming up short of the green but hitting an excellent pitch to two feet.
Another birdie opportunity went begging on the fourth, while McIlroy saved par on the eighth after splashing out of a greenside bunker to seven feet.
With scoring conditions almost perfect, McIlroy’s 66 was matched by former Masters champion Zach Johnson, with Steve Stricker, Casey Wittenberg and Hunter Mahan all finishing five under.
Newly-crowned Masters champion Adam Scott, playing alongside McIlroy and Stricker, admitted yesterday his head was still in the clouds after his first major victory last month, but carded four birdies and one bogey in a 69.
Forty of the world’s top 45 are in the 144-strong field chasing the first prize of just over $1million, 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.