PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Scores were low across the course on a warm, calm Thursday morning at TPC Sawgrass Thursday. Birdies came easy at the Stadium course.
But in the early wave’s most heralded threesome, tensions were running high. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy struggled mightily.
Asked earlier in the week about the high-octane nature of PGA Tour’s featured groups, several players and caddies privately expressed some reservations and suggested there may be a competitive advantage gained by putting together players so familiar with one another. That didn’t seem to be the case early on.
“Looking at the scoreboard, it looked like it played easy out there,” McIlroy said. “But our group didn’t feel like that, with what we shot.”
Despite positive signs early — Thomas birdied two of his first five holes, while Spieth eagled the drivable 12th — there was bad than good as the round wore on. Spieth required only seven holes to rinse a sleeve of Titleists, finding the water at 11, 13, and 16.
“This golf course makes your misses just that little bit worse,” McIlroy said afterward. “On other golf courses some of the shots [Spieth] hit today probably would have got away with and made pars, but around here you hit one slightly errant shot and you’re making a double.”
Thomas faded quickly, too. After the two-birdie start, he hit two slices, two chips, and two putts at 15 for a double bogey. He took three putts from the back of No. 17, and missed the green left at 18 to turn at two-over 38.
Not to be outdone, McIlroy took his tee shot too far left down 18 and found the water.
It’s a long walk from the 18th green to the 1st tee, and McIlroy actually seemed the cheeriest of the three after a tidy bogey save.
“Erica said I need to stop making comparisons to anything,” he said to one reporter on the walk over, referring to his comments that the Masters is the world’s most important tournament. “Just say all the tournaments are great, and leave it at that. She’s a lot smarter than I am.”
Thomas and Spieth were having decidedly less fun, each stewing over lost shots as they walked wordlessly, one after the other, past TPC’s palace clubhouse.
At the scoreable par-5 2nd, all three pummeled drives down the fairway — McIlroy with two-iron, Spieth with three-wood, and Thomas with driver. When all three missed the green, the chip-a-thon was on. After three missed short putts, only Spieth had escaped with par.
What followed was an exercise in styles of frustration. McIlroy punctuated his missed five-footer with a succinct expletive but didn’t seem to carry any rage with him to the next tee. That was less true of his playing partners. When Spieth’s tee shot at the par-3 3rd caught the front slope and spun back into the front bunker, he exploded with frustration.
“It’s one yard, every hole,” he growled through clenched teeth. “That’s one yard from being eight feet away. I mean, that’s such a good shot. I just can’t get one single break today.”
He continued venting as they walked off the tee, half to caddie Michael Greller, half to himself: “That’s three full shots where if it was a foot different on each one we would have been fine.”
Despite the gorgeous high draw he’d just hit over the pin, Thomas was in moody reflection as well, talking animatedly to caddie Jimmy Johnson about the previous hole’s bogey.
“Long and left there is just so dead,” he said. “There’s so much room short where it’s an easy up and down and I can’t believe we went long left instead. Although I guess it’s not gonna matter if I grab the wrong club anyway.”
When Spieth’s par putt slid by the hole, he slid to four over. Just 12 holes into the tournament, he’d fallen a full 10 shots behind leader Dustin Johnson, playing two groups ahead.
McIlroy hit a miraculous chip from long right of the 4th green, a low skipper that checked up well above the hole and then took the slope to perfection, rolling into the left half of the cup, earning a grin from Spieth and a wave from Thomas.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 10, 2018
After Thomas rolled in a four-footer for a birdie of his own, the good times seemed to be back on; majority ruled when it came to the group mood. As they walked three abreast down the 5th fairway, Spieth animatedly told a story that had the other two open-mouthed, paying rapt attention.
The good vibes and good breaks came together. Thomas had a difficult short shot from short and left of the 5th green but pitched it on a promising line, and McIlroy held his arm up the last 10 feet of the chip as the ball rolled toward the hole before it collided with the center of the pin and fell in the cup.
“I told you,” McIlroy yelled at Thomas, who acknowledged the crowd with a grin and a wave. “No worries!”
Spieth notched a birdie of his own at No. 7, getting one back to finish up the round at three-over 75. Thomas finished with another flourish, chipping in for par at his last hole of the day to shoot 73. McIlroy stayed in red figures, just missing a birdie putt at his finishing hole to post one-under 71.
“It’s a long week,” McIlroy said. “The golf course is just going to play firmer and faster and harder as the week goes on. And if I, from here on in, shoot three scores in the 60s I don’t feel like I’ll be that far away.”