PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Phil Mickelson hit a shot onto the green and it rolled into the water. Ben Crane hit a shot over an island and it wound up on dry land. Tiger Woods played the shortest tournament of his career.
Even on a relatively calm day, there’s no predicting what might happen at The Players Championship.
The strangest sight of all Thursday was Woods, limping off the ninth green and heading to the parking lot, but not before making a detour to a fitness trailer with a sign painted on the side that said, “Is knee pain holding you back?”
Nine holes into this first tournament since the Masters – where Woods said he had a “minor injury” to his left knee and Achilles – he couldn’t go on. He withdrew after a 42 on the front nine, his highest 9-hole score ever at the TPC Sawgrass.
“I’m having a hard time walking,” he said.
Nick Watney and so many others made it look easy, even though it rarely is on this crazy course.
One week after he missed the cut for the first time in nearly a year, Watney opened with an 8-under 64 for a one-shot lead over Lucas Glover. Not only was it Watney’s best score at Sawgrass by four shots, he had a double bogey early in his round.
“Last week in Charlotte, I got off to a bad start and I never really righted the ship,” Watney said. “So today to have a bad hole like that and still play a good round is a rewarding feeling, just because I didn’t let it affect the rest of my day.”
Glover atop the leaderboard was not unusual, not after he won last week at the Wells Fargo Championship to end a two-year drought since his U.S. Open title. He played the par-5 16th and the par-3 17th in eight shots, but not the way he would have thought. He hit into the water on the 16th to make bogey on the easiest hole at Sawgrass, then knocked in a 20-foot birdie on the island-green 17th.
There were plenty of other surprises.
Mark O’Meara, the 54-year-old who qualified for this prestigious event by winning the Senior Players Championship, returned to Sawgrass for the first time since 2003 and opened with a 66.
The last time O’Meara had a score that low on this course, Woods was still in high school. He’s not very long off the tee, but this is one golf course that is not all about length.
“Even when I went to dinner with Tiger last night, my wife Meredith said, ‘How’s Mark hitting it?’ He says, ‘Short.’ OK, yeah, I’m not 32 and strong,” O’Meara said. “But I hit it far enough.”
Davis Toms also had a 66, and he managed to do that without a single bogey on his card.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer, who can return to No. 1 in the world by winning or finishing alone in second this week, opened with a 67 along with U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Rory Sabbatini. Kaymer was witness to the biggest news of the day.
He was in the group with Matt Kuchar and Woods, although it became a twosome on the back nine when Woods left.
“Nobody really knows how much pain he was in,” Kaymer said. “He was walking really slowly. He was walking behind us. But I didn’t know that it was because of pain or I just thought that he walks a little slower than me.”
Crane shot a 68, a round highlighted because of a bogey.
On the infamous island-green 17th, Crane caught a gust of wind as the ball was in flight and it took over the green. But the ball landed on the back of the wooden frame and bounced so far that it cleared the water and landed among the spectators. He then faced a scary pitch back to the island and hit the bulkhead in about the same spot, the ball rolling to the front of the green.
He two-putted from 50 feet for his bogey, which could have been much worse.
“A crazy day, a crazy game,” Crane said.
Mickelson might have chosen a different word. He saw his tee shot land on the front corner of the green at No. 13, then begin rolling toward the bottom shelf until it dropped over the ledge.
“I didn’t know it could possibly go in the water,” Mickelson said after a 71. “I think when I design golf courses, I try not to screw the player like that. I try to keep it a little bit fair. But those things happen.”
Fortunes can turn quickly, as Watney showed.
He was never in the hunt at Quail Hollow and never looked particularly happy. But he was grinning and laughing with swing coach Butch Harmon on the range, and he came out firing.
“I was definitely disappointed,” Watney said. “But I figured there were two ways to react – you either sulk about it or come here. I flew here Saturday, did a little bit of work Sunday, just figured I’d get on with it and use it as motivation.”
He holed a 15-foot putt on the 10th hole, got up-and-down from the bunker on the par-5 11th and nearly holed his approach on the 12th. Then came the 14th, where Watney was caught in the large mounds right of the fairway. He chopped up one shot and three-putted from medium range for a double bogey, then bounced back with a birdie on the next hole.
His highlight came on the par-5 second, when he holed out a bunker shot for eagle.
Glover also made birdie on his first hole, which doesn’t mean much over the course of four days, but meant plenty to him.
“Got things going,” Glover said. “Just the confidence from last week, from looking up and seeing the ball where I’m looking instead of not. And that’s been an issue.”