Rory McIlroy content with opening 67 at The Players
On finishing hole his ball hit a storm grate and ricocheted next to a woman’s handbag
Rory McIlroy during the first round of The Players at TPC Sawgrass. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
For his five-iron approach to the ninth green, Rory McIlroy’s finishing hole, the Northern Irishman watched as the ball’s perfect trajectory took it exactly where he’d planned; then, on landing, it hit a storm grate and ricocheted upwards and onwards to finally rest next to a woman’s handbag: it wasn’t what McIlroy had planned or anticipated to finish off his first round of The Players at TPC Sawgrass, but he did manage a par five to sign for an opening five-under-par 67.
“It was a double-whammy,” said McIlroy of hitting the irrigation grid and the ball ultimately finishing beyond the green on trampled ground. “Hopefully that’s the bad break of the week,” he added of an opening bogey-free round that put him in contention, just two shots adrift of joint leaders Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley.
McIlroy hasn’t yet won on the PGA Tour this season but his form has been such – five top-six finishes – that he has contended week-in, week-out and this bogey-free round, on a course which has at times tormented him in the past, was to be grabbed. “It would have been nice to finish with a birdie, but I would have taken 67 at the start of the day,” he added.
Having started his round on the back nine, McIlroy was quickly into birdie mode with an approach to six feet on the 11th. On the drivable 317 yards par four 12th, McIlroy - who has opted not to put a three-wood into his bag this week – was undecided between his 4-wood or driver off the tee. Aware he couldn’t reach with the fairway wood, he opted to use driver - “the lesser of two evils” - which ran through the green, but he got it up and down for the second birdie of his round.
Further birdies came on the 17th (where he hit gap wedge to nine feet), second (from six feet) and the fifth (from nine feet) as he got to five-under.
On his first three tournament appearances at the Pete Dye-designed course, McIlroy had missed the cut but, over time, he found a way to get around with a scorecard in hand and has managed three top-10s without ever managing to win the tournament, which has a winner’s cheque of €2 million.
However, the switch from May to March in the schedule this year and McIlroy, who hit 10 of 14 fairways in the first round, responded with a more aggressive gameplan. “The course over the last 10 years hasn’t lent itself to aggressive play . . . I hit drivers that I would never have hit over the last few years. (You could be) a little more aggressive, get a shorter club in your hand.”
McIlroy, who hasn’t won since the Arnold Palmer Invitational some 12 months ago, insisted it is “just a matter of time” before claiming another tour win: “I am playing good golf; even on Sunday at Bay Hill, I felt like I played well. Tee-to-green I did everything I needed to do. I drove it well on the Par 5s, maybe hit a couple of scrappy shots into those, if I play the par 5s in four under it is a different story. I am playing good golf. That’s all that really matters, as long as I can continue to do that each time I give myself a chance. I am learning a bit more.”
Fleetwood claimed a share of the lead with a brilliant homeward run of just 30 strokes - six birdies and three pars - in signing for a 65. There was no indication of any fireworks from the Englishman as he turned in one-under 35, his only birdie coming on the 12th, but he was transformed after the turn with birdies at the first, second, fifth and a hat-trick from the seventh to leapfrog up the leaderboard.
“It’s clearly the next step for me (to win on the PGA Tour) but winning is not easy and I’ve just got to keep plugging away, keep doing the right things and focus on myself,” said Fleetwood.
Séamus Power, who has missed eight cuts in his last nine tournaments, struggled again with an opening 74, while Shane Lowry finished one over par. Tiger Woods finished with a bogey and will start Friday’s round two-under par. Ryan Moore’s hole-in-one on the 17th – the first ace there since Sergio Garcia in the first round in 2017 – gave him further impetus as the American, who started on the 10th, finished five-under par.
Collated first round scores (USA unless stated, par 72):
65 Keegan Bradley (USA), Tommy Fleetwood (Eng)
66 Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Brian Harman (USA)
67 Rory McIlroy (Irl), Vaughn Taylor (USA), Ryan Moore (USA)
68 JT Poston (USA), Brendan Steele (USA), Rory Sabbatini (Svk), Kyle Stanley (USA), Kevin Kisner (USA)
69 Bud Cauley (USA), Matt Wallace (Eng), Charles Howell III (USA), Tony Finau (USA), Scott Langley (USA), Jon Rahm (Spa), Billy Horschel (USA), Patrick Reed (USA), Luke List (USA), Matt Kuchar (USA), Tom Hoge (USA), Dustin Johnson (USA), Trey Mullinax (USA), Haotong Li (Chn), Joel Dahmen (USA), Denny McCarthy (USA), Michael Thompson (USA), Abraham Ancer (Mex), Sergio Garcia (Spa), Ian Poulter (Eng), Brandt Snedeker (USA), Brandon Harkins (USA)
70 Nick Watney (USA), Tiger Woods (USA), Webb Simpson (USA), Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Bryson DeChambeau (USA), Lucas Bjerregaard (Den), Jason Day (Aus), Xander Schauffele (USA), Alex Noren (Swe), Jason Dufner (USA), Adam Scott (Aus), Beau Hossler (USA), Harris English (USA), Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Russell Knox (Sco), Tyler Duncan (USA), Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng)
71 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Scott Stallings (USA), Aaron Wise (USA), Ryan Palmer (USA), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Chez Reavie (USA), Justin Thomas (USA), Ollie Schniederjans (USA), Marc Leishman (Aus), Brice Garnett (USA), Kevin Na (USA), Jim Furyk (USA), Adam Long (USA), Ryan Blaum (USA), Patton Kizzire (USA), Keith Mitchell (USA), Troy Merritt (USA)
72 Francesco Molinari (Ita), Austin Cook (USA), Gary Woodland (USA), Richy Werenski (USA), Talor Gooch (USA), Grayson Murray (USA), Peter Uihlein (USA), Patrick Rodgers (USA), Eddie Pepperell (Eng), Corey Conners (Can), Bubba Watson (USA), Brooks Koepka (USA), Cameron Smith (Aus), Ryan Armour (USA), Cheng-Tsung Pan (Tai), Jhonattan Vegas (Ven)
73 Jason Kokrak (USA), Andrew Landry (USA), Branden Grace (Rsa), Kelly Kraft (USA), Si Woo Kim (Kor), Bronson Burgoon (USA), Vijay Singh (Fij), Shane Lowry (Irl), Russell Henley (USA), Martin Trainer (USA), Nick Taylor (Can), Zach Johnson (USA), Sung Kang (Kor), Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Kevin Streelman (USA), Alex Cejka (Ger), J.B. Holmes (USA), Sungjae Im (Kor)
74 Satoshi Kodaira (Jpn), Chris Kirk (USA), Sam Ryder (USA), Harold Varner III (USA), Scott Piercy (USA), Seamus Power (Irl), Phil Mickelson (USA), Ted Potter, Jr. (USA), Justin Rose (Eng), Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), John Huh (USA), Michael Kim (USA), Rickie Fowler (USA), Dominic Bozzelli (USA)
75 Brian Stuard (USA), Charley Hoffman (USA), Scott Brown (USA), Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Sam Saunders (USA), Patrick Cantlay (USA), Danny Willett (Eng), Daniel Berger (USA), Danny Lee (Nzl), Aaron Baddeley (Aus), Jimmy Walker (USA), Henrik Stenson (Swe)
76 Andrew Putnam (USA), Brian Gay (USA), Lucas Glover (USA), Martin Laird (Sco), Kevin Tway (USA), Adam Hadwin (Can), Chesson Hadley (USA), Jordan Spieth (USA)
77 Stewart Cink (USA), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa)
78 Paul Casey (Eng), Cameron Champ (USA)
84 Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha)