Rory McIlroy shoots flawless 66 in opening round of Players at Sawgrass

Robert Castro equals course record with a nine under 63

Rory McIlroy drives on the  16th.

Rory McIlroy drives on the 16th.

Fri, May 10, 2013, 01:00

Whatever hex that befell Rory McIlroy once he set foot onto the stadium course at TPC Sawgrass was lifted yesterday, as the 24-year-old Ulsterman set off in his quest for the Players championship with a flawless 66, six-under par, opening round. “It was perfect conditions for scoring and I was able to take advantage of that,” remarked the world number two.

Although finishing three shots behind surprise first-round leader Roberto Castro, a 27-year-old American playing in his first Players, who equalled the course record of 63 also held by Fred Couples (in 1992) and Greg Norman (in 1994), McIlroy’s bogey-free round was at odds with his past failure to even break par. McIlroy had missed the cut in his three previous appearances on the Pete Dye-designed course.

‘More relaxed’
This time, there was what he termed a greater “maturity” about his play. He explained: “I feel a lot more relaxed here. Part of that is I know whatever I do this week, it will be the best thing I’ve ever done here. I’ve adopted a more conservative strategy off the tee, but if you hit the fairways you can be more aggressive. It balances out.”

McIlroy’s course management worked a dream, as – starting on the 10th – he fired five birdies on his opening nine to turn in 31 and then picked up another birdie on the second, his 11th.

The outward run saw him roll in from three feet on the 11th, hit a lob wedge to two feet on the 12th, fire a superb approach to 18 inches on the 14th and then grab back-to-back birdies on the 16th and 17th to ensure those past memories of the course were banished.

One more birdie
On the way home, McIlroy was more conservative and only added one more birdie, on the second from three feet, to post his best ever round in the Players.

“Definitely could have been better, but I’m not complaining. It’s my first round under par (at Sawgrass), so I’ll take anything I can get,” he said.

In demonstrating his greater maturity, McIlroy used his driver just three times in the round and not at all on his back nine. “I think I embrace the strategic element of it a lot more,” said McIlroy of his change in course management and reluctance to use the drive so often.

“It doesn’t give me an advantage that I have on some other golf courses, but I embrace that now and embrace that challenge.”

More strategic
McIlroy used his driver on the 11th, 14th and 16th (all of which resulted in birdies) but was more strategic when required. “There’s not point (hitting driver) on the par fives on the front nine, for example, because I’m still going to reach the green with a three-wood off the tee, if I want to . . . (and) I’m playing (the ninth) as a three-shotter this week. I don’t think I’ll go for the green once.”

Indeed, McIlroy’s only regret of his round was a failure to make a birdie on the ninth. However, he hit 15 of 18 greens and used his putter just 27 times in finally finding a way to conquer the course. His previous best round was a 72, on two occasions.

“It was benign, there wasn’t much wind and I was able to take advantage,” said McIlroy.

Feel-good vibe
Graeme McDowell also had a feel-good vibe about him after an opening 70, his round brought to life by a run of three successive birdies from the third to the fifth. It was, as McDowell attested, “a solid start”.

Castro, meanwhile, equalled the course record with a 63 that came from out of the blue. The American had an eagle on his second hole – where he hit his approach to five feet – and seven birdies to tie the long-time record held by Couples and Norman. Yet to finish inside the top 10 on tour this season, Castro went birdie-birdie-birdie from the 16th (on his opening nine) and kept going to finish up as the clubhouse leader.

Quail Hollow
Unfazed by the lack of recognition, Castro made reference post-round to the feat of Derek Ernst who won last week’s Wells Fargo championship at Quail Hollow. “No one ever heard of him (either),” said Castro, adding: “There’s a lot of good players out here.”

Making his first competitive appearance since Augusta, Adam Scott – who joked afterwards that his biggest disappointment was the failure of the on-course announcer to introduce him as the Masters champion – shot a three-under-par 69.