Only Rory Mcilroy and Pádraig Harrington could break par on a mixed opening day for the Irish in The Players — the PGA Tpur's flagship $10,000,00 event — at TPC Sawgrass.
In McIlroy's case, a three under 69 for a share of 11th was another show of strength in the wake of last week's WGC-Cadillac Match Play win as he was grouped with Masters champion Jordan Spieth and outscored him by six.
The Press Association's Phil Casey reported that McIlroy put Spieth "firmly in the shade", adding:
"Much has been made of a possible rivalry between McIlroy and Spieth, who were placed in the same group for the first time since Spieth’s victory at Augusta National in April moved him second in the world rankings.
"However, McIlroy, the world No 1, extended his lead in the rankings thanks to a win in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play on Sunday and continued that form with an opening round of 69, three under par.
"In contrast, Spieth struggled to a three-over 75 and showed his frustration by throwing his ball into the water after a bogey on the 16th. “I think anything under par, and definitely anything in the sixties, is a very good start today so I am pretty pleased with that,” he said. “You just have to be very patient. I have a lot of pars on my card there."
McIlroy opened with five straight pars before his first birdie from six feet on the 15th. He dropped his first shot after a wayward approach to the first and had some bad luck on the second. From there he could only hit his third shot into a greenside bunker but got up and down for par and also birdied the eighth to continue his upward curve.
The Guardian's Ewen Murray reports that McIlroy might be playing down any rivalry in his press conference utterances but he appears to be well and truly up for it once he hits the golf course.
"Advantage Rory Mcllroy then. The world No1 claims he has no interest in the prospect of a scrap with Jordan Spieth. His on-course approach suggests otherwise," Murray writes.
"Spieth, in contrast, cut an agitated figure. His play was sloppy, such as at the 3rd where he chipped over the green. On the next tee the Masters champion slammed his three wood into the ground in disgust. This was not the kind of mark Spieth had intended to leave in such illustrious company and sharp a spotlight. “It was a really tough ball-striking day,” he admitted....Spieth is nothing if not candid. Jason Day, the other member of the marquee group, produced a wonderful putting performance in matching McIlroy’s three-under total."
Ironically, in complaining earlier in the week about yet another rival being trotted out in the case of Spieth, last year's rival Rickie Fowler also matched McIlroy's 69, which left all concerned two strokes behind leaders Hideki Matsuyama, David Hearn, Charley Hoffman and Kevin Na, who lead by one from the all American quintet of Troy Merritt, Ben Martin, Billy Horschel, Brendon Todd and Charles Howell III.
If McIlroy was the top Irishman, Harrington was next best in a tie for 40th after a one under 71 that began worryingly enough with a three putt bogey from five feet on the 10th.
The 43-year old then birdied the par-five 11th and the short par-four 12th to get into the red but three putted the 17th for bogey and drove into the lake left at the 18th, taking six to turn in two over 38.
A homeward nine of three under 33 will have put Harrington in a happy mood even if his lone bogey at the par-three third was another three-putt, this time a six footer than he knocked two and a half feet past the hole before missing the return.
He'd birdied the previous hole, the par-five second, but two pitting from 60 feet and he recovered quickly from the three-putt at the third with a hat-trick of birdies from 36ft, 15ft and four feet at the fourth, fifth and sixth.
Considering he hit 15 greens, Harrington's tally of -2.7 strokes gained on the greens will need to be addressed if he's to contend.
But it's even more of an uphill battle for Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry and Tiger Woods as they all posted one over 73s to share 77th.
There will be no comeback from Darren Clarke, however, as the European Ryder Cup skipper withdrew with a wrist injury after unwisely soldiering through the first 11 holes in 10 over par with three bogeys, two doubles and a triple on his card.
Clarke, who qualified thanks to his 2011 Open Championship win, told PGA Tour officials he had sustained the injury on the range before the round.
McDowell's slow start to the year continued with a 73 and another lukewarm putting performances by his high standards.
Beaten in all three of his matches in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play last week, he opened with birdies at the 10th and 11th but bogeyed the next three holes by three putting the 12th and 13th and missing a six footer after a bunkered approach to the 14th.
He birdied the fifth from six feet to get back to level par but bogeyed the seventh after another failed sand save.
As for Lowry, the Clara man made five birdies but he missed nine greens and racked up four bogeys and a double.
His state of mind was hardly helped by a poor start that stemmed from a poor drive at the par-five 11th (his second).
A bad bogey six was followed by a bad bogey at the 12th, where he came up short in a bunker from 138 yards.
In fairness to Lowry, who fell three spots to 51st in the world on Monday, birdied three of the next four to get to one under only to get caught out at the 17th and 18th.
Water off the tee at the 17th led to a double and he then bogeyed the 1ast, where he went into the right rough and eventually missed a seven footer for par.
Out in 38, he came back in 35 with birdies at the second and third and a lone bogey at the seventh and he'll have tough task on Friday afternoon to make the cut.
Woods was also far from his best and while there were five birdies, he was never in total control and ended up driving into the lake at the 18th, running up a double bogey six for a 73.
He also hit one of his all-time worst shots at the eighth, according to ESPN's Bob Harig.
"I don't think my ball actually touched grooves," Woods said of the 4-iron that came up some 50 yards short of the par-3 hole from 210 yards and bounced into a water hazard that would not be considered in play for professionals.
"I've never seen it before," Woods said. "I've never seen it until now."
"It's one of those things where Chris [Como, his swing consultant] and I are working on some things, and when I start feeling a certain way, I revert back to the old habits," Woods said. "So we have been kind of exaggerating certain things and I said I'm feeling this way. I'm going to exaggerate just a little bit. And I did -- and I barely made contact."
Said Adam Scott, who played with Woods: "Occasionally everyone hits a shot that we're a little embarrassed about. I'm sure he was with that one. You have to laugh it off."
Woods followed with a birdie at the ninth but could not sustain any momentum. A birdie at the 14th was followed by a bogey at the 15th. He hit a moon shot approach from 235 yards at the par-5 16th and two-putted for birdie, but at the 17th he was fortunate his ball didn't go in the water after a wind gust. Woods then chipped in for birdie on the par-3 by purposely blading a shot from up against the collar.
With the good vibe of two straight birdies and being under par for his round for the first time, Woods ... barely pulled his tee shot at the 18th, and it found water, leading to his second double-bogey of the day.
"Probably the highest score I could have shot today," he said. "I didn't get much out of that round. I hit the ball better than the score indicates, and I got a couple of good breaks and never took advantage of them. Just really struggled hitting the putts hard enough to get them to the hole. Even when I tried to ram them, I still didn't get the ball to the hole, so I need to make a better adjustment on that."