Patience is a virtue but Shane Lowry confessed that it was a putting tip from Graeme McDowell as much as his perseverance that helped him open with a sensational 65 —recording setting back nine of 29 included— in The Players at TPC Sawgrass.
Safe in the clubhouse before McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington struggled to shoot 72 on a firming course in the afternoon, Lowry finally got the short stick working on the outskirts of Jacksonville.
Twelve months after carding rounds of 73 and 74 on his debut to miss the halfway cut by three strokes, Lowry looked to be heading for another average round when he turned for home with one birdie and one bogey on his card.
Then, like magic, putts that had shaved the hole all season began to drop and a birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie start to the back nine was polished off with further birdies at the 16th and 18th in a homeward run of seven under 29 — the first sub 30 back nine in the history of the event.
It all added up to just 25 putts for a 65 that was good enough for a brief share of the clubhouse lead with before world No 1 Jason Day equalled the course record less than an hour later with an immaculate, nine under par 63.
No fewer than 82 players broke par — the most ever — but just 32 of those rounds came in the afternoon when McIlroy hit few greens and again struggled with his scoring clubs and the nuances of when to attack and defend.
Lowry was thrilled with his score but also surprised to learn he was the first player to break 30 on the back nine in The Players at Sawgrass, his seven under 29 setting a new record.
Considering he suffered a “melt down” in practice on Wednesday, it was a pleasant surprise.
“I was just, I almost wasn’t looking forward to the week,” Lowry said. “I just, I was losing the head. I was like almost thinking, what’s the point of being here, because I felt like I was playing poorly and I was struggling on the greens.”
Having struggled for results this season, this was the round he desperately needed as the race for Ryder Cup qualifying points begins in earnest and the second major of the year approaches.
“To be honest, I hadn’t much confidence coming into this week,” Lowry confessed after his joint low round of the year.
“I actually got a little putting tip from Graeme McDowell yesterday when we played nine holes and it seemed to help.
“I felt like I putted quite nicely. Even though I was only level after nine I was playing nicely. I missed a couple of putts for birdies but I was burning the edges. So it was nice to be hitting good putts for a change. And nice to shoot a great score on the back nine and a great score overall.”
So upbeat was he that all but admitted that unless he improves his Ryder Cup qualifying chances, he will defend the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational rather than go to the clashing French Open in Paris.
“We’ll have to see where I’m sitting on the Race to Dubai or Ryder Cup. Ryder Cup rankings is kind of big, but I’m a long way off that team as it is,” he said. “I really want to go back and defend, and I’m kind of sort of 75-25 percent now whether I will or not."
Lowry got off to a solid start in perfect morning conditions when he got up and down from green side rough for birdie at the second, holing a 13 footer.
But having put together few hots streaks of scoring so far this season — his only top 10 so far came in Phoenix in early February when he also opened with 65 and ended up tied sixth — the world found sand off the tee at the sixth and bogeyed before catching fire on the way home
It all began when a 35 footer fell for birdie four at the 424-yard 10th and he followed that by chipping in for an eagle three at the 11th.
Suddenly three under par, Lowry hit a 109-yard wedge to just five feet at the 12th and after rolling home that putt, he made another from just inside six feet for a two at the 181-yard 13th.
Great rounds often feature great saves but Lowry almost made birdie from trouble right of the 14th, hitting a 173-yard approach from the wood to 10 feet.
He had to make a seven footer for par after another pushed drive led to a missed green at the 15th. But he was right back on track at the par-five 16th, putting up dead from a few paces short of the green to go six under for the day.
The par-three 17th has ruined many cards but with the pin cut at the front, his 124 yard sand wedge finished inside 10 feet and he walked away with a safe par.
A sensational 331-yard tee shot at the 18th hugged the water-line, leaving Lowry just 132 yards to the pin.
A sand wedge to 12 feet ended with another birdie as he rammed home the putt.
“I got aggressive on the last, hit driver down and had a sand wedge in again” Lowry said with a grin. “I hit it the putt a bit too hard but thankfully it went in the middle.
“Around this golf course you just need to be patient. There are a lot of guys going low today and the greens are quite receptive.
“I can imagine they are going to firm up and I go off late tomorrow afternoon. So between now and tomorrow afternoon, I’d imagine they are going to be a lot firmer.
“It’s just important to try and stay patient, try and pick your birdies off when you can and when you get in trouble, try and make pars.
“Patience is massive around this golf course. It’s great to see the putter behaving so I probably owe G-Mac a beer at some stage this week for the tip.”
Day’s 63, which was a massive 18-shot improvement on his second round 81 last year, left him two ahead of Lowry, Cameron Tringale, Justin Rose, Bill Haas and Brendan Steele with playing partner Jordan Spieth forced to settle for a 72 after being three under with five to go.
As Masters champion Danny Willett opened with a 70 in his first competition since slipping on the green jacket, world No 2 Spieth bogeyed the fifth and sixth and then followed a birdie at the seventh with a closing, double bogey seven at the ninth where he took five to get up and down from the back bunker, semi-fluffing a bunker shot and a chip before missing a three and a half footer.
"I hit it seven times," Spieth said. "I hit two fantastic shots, and then not really sure after that."
Spieth is tied for 83rd with McIlroy, McDowell and Harrington and given their position they would need to produce one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the event to win from nine behind after round one.
McIlroy’s struggles with the front nine continued as he failed to make a birdie and went out in one over 35 before coming back in 37 with birdies at the par-five 11th (he missed from 11 feet for eagle) and the 17th against an unfortunate bogey six at the 16th, where his daring approach from the pin straw kicked off the back shoulder of the front right trap and scooted through the green into the water.
Ranked 115th for strokes gained putting after hitting just 11 greens and taking 30 putts, McIlroy pointed to the tougher afternoon conditions as the main reason for his score.
“Bit of a bad break there,” he said of his four iron into the water at the 16th. “It was nice to get the shot back straight away (at 17).
“I played okay. I don’t know what the guys were doing out there this morning but I don’t think we saw the same golf course. It was a little firmer, the wind got up and those guys made the course look awfully easy this morning.
"Hopefully we get similar conditions tomorrow and I can take advantage of that and try to move up the leaderboard a little bit.”
The Holywood native, wearing Rickie Fowler style "joggers", pointed out that he had no chance for most of last week and “then boom, you’re there.”
“Golf tournaments are a marathon not a sprint,” he said. “I need to go out tomorrow and play good and shoot something in red numbers, hopefully in the mid 60s and have somewhat of a chance going into the weekend.”
He added: “Today was one of those days where I was sort of in neutral and couldn’t get it going at all.”
Harrington made four birdies and four bogeys in an up and down round, finishing the day 126th for strokes gained putting, losing more than two shots to the field on the greens
McDowell went out in an immaculate two under but bogeys at the 10th and 13th undid all his good work in a round that stood out for his 90 percent scrambling success rate after he hit just eight greens.