Shane Lowry three off the lead as Rory McIlroy opens with horror 79 at Sawgrass

Sergio Garcia has the last laugh with opening 65 at The Players Championship

 Rory McIlroy looks on from the 10th hole during the first round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. Photogrph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy looks on from the 10th hole during the first round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. Photogrph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

 

Sergio Garcia had the last laugh, in more ways than one in The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Florida. While the Spaniard arrived onto the first tee slightly out of breath after making a late dash to ensure he arrived on time, much to the amusement of his playing partners Rory McIlroy and Webb Simpson, it was Garcia – at a favoured golfing terrain - who stole the show with an opening round seven-under-par 65, which included two eagles.

It was no laughing matter for McIlroy, though. Desperately seeking to find a swing that he can trust, the Northern Irishman’s very first shot – a pulled hook into trees on the 10th that led to a double-bogey six – set the tone for much of what would follow as an error-prone opening nine saw him turn in 43 strokes after a quadruple-bogey eight on the 18th and he eventually signed for a seven-over 79.

“You’re trying to figure it out as you go along on the course, right? But you’re still not sure really sure where the shots are coming from and, then, it’s hard to try to eliminate one side of the golf course, basically,” said an exasperated McIlroy, the 2019 champion but totally at odds with how he played the famed Pete Dye-designed course on that occasion. As, technically, the defending champion (with the tournament abandoned last year after one round due to the impact of Covid-19), McIlroy’s defence ended almost as soon as it started.

McIlroy, admittedly, wasn’t alone in finding the course a tough walk. Former British Open champion Henrik Stenson signed for an 85; and South Korean Ben An, for instance, was travelling along nicely until he arrived to the Par-3 17th where he proceeded to hit four balls, one after the other, into the lake and ran up an 11.

As Graeme McDowell, after a tough start to his season but finally showing some semblance of form with a 73, put it: “They always call this golf course a bit of a superstar killer, right? I feel like this golf course has that reputation, where the best players in the world can come [and be wounded]. It kind of had Rory’s number for a lot of years.”

Shane Lowry splashes out of a bunker on the 18th hole during the first round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA
Shane Lowry splashes out of a bunker on the 18th hole during the first round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Shane Lowry finally found some of his old form, emerging as one of Garcia’s main challengers. Lowry was in the second wave and moved to four under on his round through nine holes – his birdies coming on the second, a chip-in on the sixth, and further birdies on the seventh and ninth – to turn in 32 and the Offalyman moved to five under on his round with a birdie on the Par-5 11th only to drop a shot on the 12th after a poor approach missed the green.

A birdie two at the 17th where he sank a 17-foot putt was undone with a closing bogey after he found the rough off his drive and was unable to make the green in regulation. It dropped Lowry out of a share of second spot on five under alongside American Brian Harman, joining England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick and Canada’s Corey Connors on four under.

Garcia appeared immune to any of the issues which inflicted so many players, with his eagles – on the 16th and his finishing ninth holes – providing the gloss on a fine display of ball-striking and pure putting that gave him the clubhouse lead in his bid to add a second Players title to his win back in 2008.

As it happened, it seemed that his biggest challenge was actually to make his tee time. “I left the range at 7.35, I was teeing off at 7.40 so I figured it’s going to take me probably two, three minutes at most to get to 10. I don’t know if the clock on the range was behind or something but when I got to the putting green 50 yards short of [the 10th tee], I looked [at the clock] and the sun was coming up and I couldn’t see if it was 7.38 or 7.39,” explained Garcia of hot-footing it to the tee in time.

Garcia finished his round in style with an eagle putt from 18 feet to close off, some 14 shots better off than McIlroy. “[On] this course, you don’t have to be that far off to get penalised a lot . . . I told him when we finished, ‘just go out there tomorrow and get it’. You never know, I shot a seven-under so he can shoot seven-under [in the second round] and hopefully make the cut. He’s able to do it.”

Sergio Garcia of Spain drives from the 18th tee during the first round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Sergio Garcia of Spain drives from the 18th tee during the first round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

McDowell, with three missed cuts in four outings globally so far this year, felt this round marked a new beginning: “I’m just satisfied that to me this week feels like the beginning. It feels like the end of something and it feels like the beginning of something, I don’t know what it is.

“It’s been a really weird kind of nine or 10 months for me since we came back in June. I left off with some momentum and I’ve come back out and I’ve had no momentum and somehow I feel like it’s the crowds and some familiar surroundings, Bay Hill last week and here this week and the familiarity to me.

“It’s like I feel like we’re at the end. Obviously it’s not the end globally for this thing, but like from a golf point of view, I feel like some kind of some kind of familiarity coming back, which I need. My swing’s starting to turn a corner a little bit and I needed to kind of draw a line in the sand and try and get myself back to where I was this time last year.”

First-round scores

Par 72 (USA unless stated, Irish in bold, play suspended with 21 players still to finish their rounds)

65 Sergio Garcia (Esp)

67 Brian Harman

68 Corey Conners (Can), Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng), Shane Lowry

69 Tom Hoge, Lee Westwood (Eng), Bryson DeChambeau, Denny McCarthy

70 Christiaan Bezuidenhout (Rsa), Keegan Bradley, Adam Long, Nick Taylor (Can), Gary Woodland, Ryan Palmer, Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, Steve Stricker

71 Scott Brown, Dylan Frittelli (Rsa), Doug Ghim, Harry Higgs, Billy Horschel, Russell Knox (Sco), Phil Mickelson, Sebastian Munoz (Col), Webb Simpson, Cameron Smith (Aus), Justin Thomas, Michael Thompson, Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Marc Leishman (Aus), Collin Morikawa

72 Joel Dahmen, Sung Jae Im (Kor), Si Woo Kim (Kor), Tyler McCumber, Sam Ryder, Adam Schenk, Abraham Ancer (Mex), Viktor Hovland (Nor), Andrew Landry, Kyoung-Hoon Lee (Kor), Jon Rahm (Esp), Adam Scott (Aus), Brendan Steele, Viktor Hovland (Nor)

73 Paul Casey (Eng), Lanto Griffin, Max Homa, Charles Howell III, Jerry Kelly, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Carlos Ortiz (Mex), Victor Perez (Fra), Doc Redman, Dustin Johnson, Martin Laird (Sco), Joaquin Niemann (Chi), Cameron Percy (Aus), Scott Piercy, Chez Reavie, Kevin Streelman, Cameron Tringale, Aaron Wise

74 Patrick Cantlay, Brice Garnett, Robert MacIntyre (Sco), Troy Merritt, Andrew Putnam, Scottie Scheffler, Brendon Todd, Kristoffer Ventura (Nor), Ryan Armour, Daniel Berger, Branden Grace (Rsa), Nate Lashley, Brandt Snedeker

75 Lucas Glover, Russell Henley, Kevin Kisner, Cameron Champ, Mackenzie Hughes (Can), Zach Johnson, Robby Shelton, Bernd Wiesberger (Aut)

76 Stewart Cink, Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Matt Kuchar, Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Keith Mitchell, JT Poston, Xander Schauffele, Vaughn Taylor, Xinjun Zhang (Chn), Sung-Hoon Kang (Kor), Peter Malnati, Scott Stallings, Robert Streb, Bubba Watson

77 Austin Cook, Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter (Eng), Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Pat Perez

78 Tony Finau, Alexander Noren (Swe), Chengtsung Pan (Tai), Anirban Lahiri (Ind)

79 Wyndham Clark, Rory McIlroy

80 Brian Gay, Henrik Norlander (Swe), Tyler Duncan, Richy Werenski

81 Sam Burns, Jim Herman, Matthew NeSmith

82 Hudson Swafford

83 Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Kyle Stanley, Jimmy Walker

85 Henrik Stenson (Swe)

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