Top players struggle to sustain momentum during The Players Championship opening round
Worlds best find the going tough on the opening day of the ‘fifth major’
Jason Day opened with a 63 during the 2016 Players Championship and never looked back for the first wire-to-wire win in 33 years at TPC Sawgrass.
Day was going low and thinking big again midway through Thursday’s first round.
“I was thinking actually 7-, 8-under after the second hole,” said Day, who began the day on the 10th hole.
Instead, Day began to go backwards and ended his round with bogeys on three of his final four rounds en route to a 2-under par round of 70.
It was a solid start for the former world number one, who has just one top-10 finish in 2017. It also was that kind of day at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium.
Many of golf’s biggest names struggled to gain traction, much less maintain it.
Adam Scott, the 2004 Players champion, found the water on his final two holes and closed with consecutive bogeys, falling from the solo lead at 6-under into tie for 19th with Day and a host of players, including Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.
“It’s hard to stay out of trouble all day,” Scott said. “Obviously there’s so much water here and there’s no real easy recovery from the water.”
Momentum was fleeting amid hot, dry weather, firm conditions and sporadic winds.
“It’s pretty hard out there,” Day said. “It’s only going to get firmer and faster.”
Journeyman William McGirt, a 38-year-old who cut his teeth on the Carolina mini tours, was able to keep it together better than most, but stumbled with a bogey on the par 4 18th hole – ranked the day’s toughest hole. Thanks to a pair of back-nine eagles, McGirt still ended the day tied at 5-under par with PGA Tour rookie Mckenzie Hughes.
McGirt, the 2016 Memorial winner, contended last month at the Masters and looks to continue his strong play on tough tracks.
“It’s amazing what a little bit of confidence will do,” McGirt said. “The win last year was huge for my confidence ... kind of proved to myself that, hey, I can play golf at the major championship level.”
Hughes, a 26-year-old Canadian, was making his first start in golf’s “fifth major,” but was unflappable on his way to a bogey-free 67, one of four rounds without a blemish. Alex Noren (68), Jon Rahm (68) and Lee Westwood (70) did not make bogey either.
Hughes tied for the lead Thursday in scrambling, converting all five of his up-and-down opportunities.
“To go bogey-free around this place, very difficult to do, obviously,” he said. “I started the day, I wouldn’t have expected a round like that. It wasn’t perfect golf, but I managed it really well and made a few nice saves when I needed to and made a few nice putts.
“It was good, a good day.”
Many top players watched good days go south quickly.
Beginning his day at the 10th hole, Fowler made the turn at 4-under par. A double bogey on the par-4 6th left the 2015 Players winner three-over par during a three-hole stretch, but he did close with a final-hole birdie.
“Just had two holes get away from me,” said Fowler, who hit 11 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens in regulation.
World number one Dustin Johnson was scrambling from the par-4 opening hole, when his approach hit the flagstick and rolled off the green.
“I hit two perfect shots and I make a 5 on No 1,” he said.
Johnson horse-shoed his birdie putt on the next hole, and did it again on the short par-4 12th. Despite his frustrations, Johnson salvaged a 71 with enough quality shots and some tremendous lag putts for par, including one from 88 feet on the par-4 15th hole.
“I just kind of hung in there,” he said. “I’m OK with the round. Obviously, it could have been really good today but ended up just being okay.”