Power Trio: McIlroy, Stricker and Scott make TPC Sawgrass look easy

Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott
Associated Press
Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy chat during their first round at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday morning.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.—They tried to hold The Players here Thursday but a Bob Hope Classic broke out instead.

Red numbers for everyone! Not, as the famous Seinfeld punch line goes, that there’s anything wrong with that.

Some traditionalists may not like it but low scores don’t demean the game or the course or the tournament. Everyone who’s not wearing a blue blazer or a stuffed shirt likes birdies and eagles. Protecting par is overrated, if not an antiquated notion, and impossible on a beautiful day like Thursday when the morning air was dead calm and the greens were relatively soft.

How easy did the vaunted Stadium Course play in The Players’ opening round? Well, Steve Stricker birdied six of his first 11 holes… and never hit first off the tee in his threesome. Rory McIlroy, also in the group, birdied the same six holes. “No,” Rory said with a gleeful chuckle, “Steve couldn’t get the honor off me.”

Stricker, McIlroy and Masters champ Adam Scott, the third member of the threesome, racked up 16 birdies between. Scott was the group’s slacker, posting a mere 69. Stricker shot 67. McIlroy put up 66, which left him three shots behind the low score from the morning half of the field, Roberto (The Other) Castro, whose 63 tied the course record shared by Fred Couples and Greg Norman.

“They certainly made it look very easy,” Scott said. “We all played nicely and they kept making putts. No one was really in any trouble. It was professional golf out there today. I was surprised that someone was already five under when I teed off but it was ideal. There wasn’t even a breath of wind.”

There was never a chance that scores weren’t going to be low Thursday. Scott Stallings, playing in the fifth group off the tee in the morning, opened with birdies on the first five holes and looked as he might shoot a Heinz (57) or maybe even a DiMaggio (56). Stallings then stalled, pardon the irony, with five straight pars. The Stadium Course is never completely toothless, not with all those water hazards. Stallings doubled the 12th when his shot caromed off a tree into an unplayable lie in a bush and drowned a ball in the lake en route to a triple-bogey 8 at the 16th. That’s the kind of NASCAR-crash action we’re used to seeing at this place, not Thursday’s festival of birdies.

“You don’t have to hit very many bad shots out here to have this course bite you a little bit,” said Stallings, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., with his wife, Jennifer, and a new baby. “The course is there for the taking. I don’t remember making seven birdies and shooting one under but it just goes to show how volatile this golf course can be.”

Sweden’s Peter Hanson had a rollercoaster round similar to Stallings in which he wrangled seven birdies and an eagle and settled for a two-under 70. Hanson started with a double bogey at the 10th, then made a quadruple-bogey 8 at the 18th when he yanked two drives left into the lake. He finished birdie-birdie-eagle on the front nine to salvage a crazy round.

A light breeze came up in midday, which threatened to slow the onslaught of birdies but there were already 10 scores of 68 or better by the time the morning half finished.

The Other Castro led the charge. Who’s he, you’re wondering? He’s 27, was born in Houston, played college golf at Georgia Tech and still lives in Atlanta. The best finish of his career was a tie for seventh last year in the Greenbrier Classic. So forget the 63 he stapled on the leaderboard. Castro was pretty much just happy to be here, even if few knew exactly who he was.

“Derek Ernst won last week in his eighth event and no one ever heard of him,” Castro said. “There are a lot of good players out here. It gets proven every week.”

It didn’t hurt Castro that he got in a practice round Wednesday with Matt Kuchar, the defending champion and a fellow Georgia Tech alum, and got a few helpful hints on how to play the course.

“It was nice going around with someone that can give you a little bit of help here and there,” Castro said. “It’s always interesting to watch what he does around the greens, where he practiced his chipping and putting from. Matt is fun. He keeps it light out there. If my attitude would be more like Kuchar’s, it would probably be better.”

Castro’s play made the Stadium Course look more like an executive course layout. “He hit it to a foot every hole, it felt like,” joked Jason Bohn, who was paired with Castro and shot 68. “It kind of rubbed off on us. We all said after, we’re in trouble now. Roberto shot 63 and they’re going to suck the moisture out of these bad boys [greens] tonight.”

Castro hit it to two feet for birdies at 17, 18, 4 and 5 and to 1 foot at the ninth. The longest putt he made during his 63 was 9 feet, 8 inches, according to the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system. That’s right, he made seven birdies and an eagle and holed nothing outside of 10 feet. The eagle at the par-5 second came after a terrific second shot to four feet. It was quite a round, an easy 63 if there is such a thing.

“I hit it close a lot,” he said with classic understatement.

McIlroy’s round was less surprising. The former No. 1 player in the world appears to finally have a handle on his game after an off-season of distractions, including all new equipment. He also has a handle on the Stadium Course, apparently. His new game plan is to go Rush Limbaugh-conservative off the tee. He hit only three drivers in the opening round.

“I’m trying to hit more fairways and from there, it’s a lot easier to shoot at some of these pins,” McIlroy said. “It’s very hard to control your ball out of the Bermuda rough here. It’s such an advantage to hit off the fairway.”

He said his game started coming together bit by bit in Houston, then San Antonio and at the Masters apart from one poor nine-hole stretch.

“It’s been a gradual process over the past few weeks,” McIlroy said. “Mentally, I’m very confident with my irons. I think I’m in a good place.”

McIlroy’s confidence has returned? Make a note of that for the weekend, ladies and gentlemen.

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