Rory McIlroy broke par for the first time on the Stadium Course at Sawgrass, surgically carving out a six under 66 to trail suprise leader Roberto Castro by three strokes.
In an event where he has never made the cut in three appearances, the 24-year old plotted his way around the tactically challenging Pete Dye design to put himself in contention for his first win of the season and a potential return to world No 1.
“I’m definitely a lot more relaxed coming in here this year,” said McIlroy, who last two wins have come on Pete Dye courses. “Whatever I do this week what I felt coming in is I’ll do better than I ever have before.
“I feel like I’ve got the game to contend. I just wanted to go out and play well, and that’s what I’ve done so far.”
Taking advantage of perfect early conditions, McIlroy started on the 10th and raced to the turn in five under with birdies at the 11th, 12th, 14th, 16th and 17th.
He used the driver three times - at the 11th, 14th and 16th - but left it in the bag on the front nine and combined eight pars with a birdie at the par-five second.
That conservative approach was the they to his round as in past years he has taken out the big stick on the second, 5th, seventh and ninth.
“Maybe six or seven drivers last year,” McIlroy said of his past tactics and why he opted to lay up more often this year.
“There is no point,” he said after finishing his day tied for second with Zach Johnson. “The par‑5s on the front nine, for example, there is no point hitting driver off either one of those for me because I’m still going to reach the green with a three‑wood off the tee if I want to.
“I’m playing nine as a three-shotter this week; I don’t think I’ll go for the green once. And the second hole I was still hitting iron in after hitting 3‑wood off the tee.”
So confident is McIlroy in his long game, he had no problem leaving himself longer shots to the green.
“The way I feel like I’m hitting my irons, I can take advantage of that.”
Graeme McDowell had five birdies and three bogeys in a two under 70 and declared himself happy with his score.
“Generally hit it good today,” McDowell said on Twitter. “Speed was off on the greens but all in all a solid start. This course has great balance of danger and chances.”