Rory McIlroy rescues opening round with late birdies
McIlroy six shots off the lead at Players; Sergio Garcia aces 17th on return to action
Sergio Garcia celebrates his hole in one on the 17th during the first round of the The Players Championship at the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images
Just days after signing a megabucks $100 million deal to use TaylorMade equipment, Rory McIlroy – on his first appearance since the Masters last month – failed to cash in as an opening round 73, one rescued by two late birdies in his closing three holes, left him trailing first-round leaders William McGirt and Mackenzie Hughes by six shots.
The recently married Northern Irishman struggled for much of his first round, only to find a way to conquer the course late on. Having suffered a disappointing double bogey on his 10th hole, where he had nonchalantly attempted to hole out from 18 inches for a bogey only to see the ball slide by the hole, McIlroy found a late sparkle with a birdie on the Par 5 16th and then a 30-footer for birdie on the last.
With the new M2 driver in his bag, McIlroy found it difficult to keep his tee shots on the fairway: he only found six of 14 fairways. He suffered two double-bogeys in his round, only to rally late on.
“What can I say?” asked McIlroy, before answering his own question. “I was a little rusty . . . I feel like I turned a 75 or a 76 into a 73, so it wasn’t all bad. But, yeah, I didn’t hit enough fairways, didn’t hit enough greens. I felt like I was scrambling all day, but I scrambled pretty well and I birdied two of the last three holes to make it somewhat respectable.”
McIlroy’s two double-bogeys – on the 10th, where he three-putted, and the 14th, when he pulled his drive into a water hazard – threatened to derail him but he managed to salvage his round with late birdies on the 16th and the 18th.
Graeme McDowell opened with a 71, a round he saw as “a good day’s work considering I didn’t play that fantastic . . . I didn’t play all that great but I wasn’t 100 per cent at the races and sometimes you have to deal with that to see if you can put a score in.”
Shane Lowry struggled for much of his round but managed two late birdies – on the 16th and 17th, where his tee shot barely cleared the water to make the green – to sign for a 74 which left him in tied-83rd and with some work to do to make the cut.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia marked his return to action in spectacular fashion with a hole-in-one at the 17th.
Making his first start since claiming a maiden Major title at Augusta National, Garcia had been four over par for his first six holes at Sawgrass after four-putting the fifth, the same hole he six-putted in the third round last year.
However, the 37-year-old started the back nine with a birdie on the 10th and followed a bogey on the 15th with a birdie on the 16th, before producing a moment of magic on the 17th.
Garcia’s tee shot on the treacherous par three pitched short of the flag and bounced twice before spinning back into the cup for the eighth ace on the hole in tournament history.
In stark contrast, playing partner Adam Scott found water on the 17th and 18th to card consecutive double bogeys and slump from six under to two under alongside the likes of defending champion Jason Day, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.
Garcia signed for a 73 which left him six shots off the pace set by American McGirt and Canada’s Hughes, with Spain’s Jon Rahm and Sweden’s Alex Noren a shot further back with JB Holmes and Chez Reavie.
“I played 16 nicely and I obviously hit a really, really good shot [on 17] but you’re looking at it and you don’t know what to tell the ball,” Garcia told Sky Sports.
“You don’t know whether to say ‘be good’, ‘go’ or ‘sit’ because it’s such a tricky hole, but it was a pretty good yardage for me to hit a solid 52-degree [wedge] and fortunately it worked out perfect for me and went in.”
Garcia admitted he struggled to get back into competitive mode early in the round, adding: “I thought it was going to be easier than it was.
“There have been so many things going on and maybe I would have loved to play something before this week to come here a little more relaxed. It’s been a busy week and at the beginning I wasn’t really in the tournament.
“When I woke up I was four over after six so I’m happy I was able to get back a little bit and salvage a decent round and I need a good one tomorrow to get back in the tournament.”