McIlroy battles tight back and ring rust at Sawgrass
Rory McIlroy plays a bunker shot at the par-five second

Rory McIlroy plays a bunker shot at the par-five second

Rory McIlroy insisted that the indian was to blame rather than the arrows as he battled a tight back and birdied two of his last three holes to salvage a one over par 73 on the first round of The Players at TPC Sawgrass.

On mixed day for the Irish — Graeme McDowell had to produce one of his trademark grinding performances to shoot 71 as Shane Lowry struggled to a 74 — McIlroy's first outing with his new TaylorMade equipment was a discreet one.

In his defence, the 28-year old Co Down man had not played a competitive round since the Masters and hit few balls until late last week following his recent wedding and honeymoon.

But it was still somewhat alarming to hear him speak of back trouble shortly after he made a 33-footer for a three at the 18th to end the day six shots behind American William McGirt and Canadia Mackenzie Hughes, who shot 67s.

"What can I say," McIlroy said after a round that featured five birdies, two bogeys and two double bogey sixes. "I was a little rusty out there. 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. 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."

His six at the 10th came when he went to casually brush home a two footer.

"Yeah, it was just a bit of a loss of concentration. I went to tap one in, and it came straight left off the putter, and thought to myself, I'd better mark the next one — just one of those things. 

"It was definitely a cheap shot given away, but as I said, just to make a couple coming in was nice. At least gives me a chance to go out and shoot a good one tomorrow and get myself in the mix."

McIlroy made his switch to TaylorMade because he loves their ball and how it reacts in the wind. 

There was little breeze on day one at Sawgrass, however, and hitting from the rough or the trees meant he learned little about how his equipment works in competition.

"I felt my distance control was okay for the most part," he said. "But, yeah, I mean it was definitely more the user of the equipment than the equipment today."

What's interesting is that McIlroy has played just five events this year and after four weeks away from golf, he admitted that he has not been overdoing it on the practice front.

Add to that the fact that he has aggravated his sometimes suspect back and it will be interesting to see how he progresses as the countdown begins to next month's US Open at Erin Hills.

He said: "In fairness, I haven't been able to practice as much as I wanted to the last few days. I only played nine holes here. I've been very limited hitting golf balls. 

"My back has got a little bit stiff again, I guess just from obviously building it up and playing through and then not doing anything for three weeks and then coming back last weekend and hitting balls for four or five hours a day. 

"I just aggravated that joint in my back again, the thing that sort of happened at the start of the season. I've sort of been trying to rest that and manage that, so I think that's why I'm a little bit rusty, as well. 

"But I think this week it's just about trying to manage that and get through the week and try to play with what I have, and then next week try to get that better and try to recover and try to play a good stretch of golf from here through the summer and obviously focus on the majors."

McGirt and Hughes lead by a stroke on five-under par from J.B. Holmes, Alex Noren, Chez Reavie and Jon Rahm with McDowell tied for 32nd on one-under after his 71.

Lowry's poor start to the year continued as he had two three-putts in a 32-putt 74.

That he birdied the 16th by two putting and then holed a 14 footer for a two at the 17th at least gives him a chance to make the cut.

But he will be frustrated that he dropped four shots in a four-hole stretch from the eighth, where he three-putted from 12 feet after a stunning tee shot at that tough, 244-yard par-three.

A bunkered approach to the 10th led to another bogey but he then  slipped to four over for the day at the par-five 11th, where he drove into a fairway bunker on the left, laid up and overshot the green with his third before taking four more to get down.