By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Robert Castro opened with a course record-tying 63 to take a three-shot lead on Thursday. Whether he still has that lead by the time he tees off Friday afternoon, who knows. Conditions appear to be good for scoring again and already a few players -- Tiger Woods among them -- have started to make a move. Here's a look at who and what to watch for this afternoon.
Roberto Castro (12:46 p.m. ET): A big reason Castro was able to go so low in the opening round was because he hit close -- six of his approach shots were inside 5 feet. That will be a tall order come the afternoon when the wind is expected to increase along with the temperature, making for a firm, fast golf course.
Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler (1:18 p.m. ET): After failing to break 70 in 16 of his last 17 rounds, which included a pair of missed cuts and two other finishes near the bottom of the leaderboard, Mahan was "stress free" with a 67 Thursday. Given his accuracy, he should fare well here (two years ago, he finished sixth). Fowler, on the other hand, struggled to a 73 and will have some ground to make up to make the cut.
Keegan Bradley, Graeme McDowell (1:28 p.m. ET): Both were 2 under on Thursday, and McDowell comes into this week having recently won at another Pete Dye course (Harbour Town).
Zach Johnson (1:49 p.m. ET): Perhaps lost in all the headlines Thursday was Johnson, who was superb with seven birdies and just one bogey. Johnson has played progressively better here the last three years, finishing 32nd, 22nd, 12th and second.
Rory McIlroy, Steve Stricker, Adam Scott (1:49 p.m. ET): McIlroy finally broke par here with a sublime 66 in the opening round and he finally appears to be comfortable around this place. His last two wins have also come on Pete Dye courses. Stricker was nearly as good with a 67 and between the three the group made just two bogeys.
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It was golf’s version of H-O-R-S-E, and Rory McIlroy wouldn’t give up the tee box to Steve Stricker.
“Steve and I halved every hole for the first 11 holes,” McIlroy said. “We both birdied the exact same holes.”
They shot nearly identical scores, too -- McIlroy a 6-under 66 and Stricker a 67 in the opening round of THE PLAYERS Championship.
The third member of the group, 2004 PLAYERS champion, Adam Scott wasn’t too bad, either. He shot 69.
“I think when you get all three guys playing well in a group, you sort of feed off one another,” McIlroy said. “It was a good group to be a part of.”
It was a good round for McIlroy, too, beyond just the score.
In three previous trips here, McIlroy had never made the cut or broken par. Thursday, he made six birdies and no bogeys, turning in 31 after starting on the back nine.
If there was something that McIlroy, who just turned 24, learned in his previous appearances, it’s that he doesn’t need to hit driver often at TPC Sawgrass.
In the past, he would hit the big club on Nos. 2, 5, 7 and 9. And that was on just the front nine. “Maybe six or seven drivers last year,” McIlroy added.
Thursday, he didn’t any drivers on the front nine, and he hit just three overall (on Nos. 11, 14 and 16).
“There is no point,” he said. “The par‑5s on the front nine, for example, there is no point hitting driver off either one of those for me because I'm still going to reach the green with a 3‑wood off the tee if I want to.
“I'm playing nine as a three-shotter this week; I don't think I'll go for the green once. And the second hole I was still hitting iron in after hitting 3‑wood off the tee.”
The point McIlroy is making is that it is more important to keep his ball in the fairway.
“Once you do that,” he said. “The way I feel like I'm hitting my irons, I can take advantage of that.”
Everyone in the group did, too, with 16 birdies and just two bogeys between the three.
“I was a little surprised when I teed off that someone was 5 under already,” said Scott, playing for the first time since winning the Masters. “I thought it might play a little tougher than that. But it was ideal. There wasn't even a breath of wind hardly the front nine. The greens seemed pretty receptive, too, so if you were in the fairway you could attack.”
For McIlroy, a consistent swing has allowed him to do just that in recent weeks after struggling in the beginning of the season. In his last three starts, McIlroy has finished 10th, 25th and second.
“I'm definitely a lot more relaxed coming in here this year,” said McIlroy, who last two wins happen to come on Pete Dye-designed courses. “Whatever I do this week what I felt coming in is I'll do better than I ever have before. I feel like I've got the game to contend. I just wanted to go out and play well, and that's what I've done so far.”
No player putted better in 2012 than Brandt Snedeker. (Martin/Getty Images)
By PGATOUR.COM staff
No one can dispute the fact that Brandt Snedeker and Steve Stricker are among the best putters on the PGA TOUR.
Last year, Snedeker ranked first on TOUR in strokes gained-putting en route to winning the FedExCup, and currently ranks 11th in that category this year. Stricker has yet to play the minimum number of rounds this year to qualify statistically (he's played just seven; the mininum is 14), but unofficially he ranks second. And of course, Stricker gave a well-documented putting tip that Tiger Woods as put to good use lately.
This week's first two rounds of the Shell Houston Open offers golf fans a chance to watch Snedeker and Stricker match their putting talents head-on, since those two will play in the same group, along with another former FedExCup winner, Bill Haas. They tee off at 2 p.m. ET on Thursday and 9 a.m. ET on Friday.
Although Haas doesn't have the putting credentials that Snedeker and Stricker have, he certainly can hold his own in terms of hitting greens in regulation.
Haas currently ranks sixth in GIR, hitting 71.58 percent. Snedeker, meanwhile, is first on TOUR at 74.07 percent. And Stricker, if he had enough rounds to qualify, would be first at 76.19 percent.
Hitting greens has always been a big part of Haas' game -- he ranked 21st in the category in 2010 and 11th in 2011 -- and he seems to have found his groove again after struggling in that category last season.
Snedeker, meanwhile, has made a dramatic improvement in that area. In the previous four years, he never anked better than 113th in GIR, and last year he ranked 132nd.
By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
HUMBLE, Texas – Honestly, it wasn’t anything Steve Stricker hasn’t said before.
He and Tiger Woods have talked about putting a lot but ... just not when the cameras were rolling, not when they spent an hour together on the practice green and not when Tiger was justthisclose to putting it all together.
By all accounts, Stricker’s private tutoring session the Wednesday of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship was the last piece of the puzzle.
In other words, some say with tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, it’s all Stricker’s fault that Tiger has now won the last two tournaments he’s played. It’s either that or chatter that Stricker could be the next Dave Stockton Sr.
“It's a little blown out of proportion, I think,’’ Stricker said, grinning. “Not that his -- not his putting stats and that he's putting good. But we've talked putting a lot before and whether something really clicked this time for him, I don't know.
“I mean, he seemed happy when I left him on that Wednesday, and to throw me a bone like did at the end of the tournament, it was very nice. He doesn't do that very often, so that was nice. But, yeah, no, I didn't see that coming. You know, it's something, like I said, something really hit home with him there when I spent that time with him, and it's good to see.’’
When asked what he told Tiger, Stricker grinned.
“Can’t tell you,’’ he said with a smile.
Whatever it was, he hasn’t been able to walk too far this week without someone asking him about a lesson.
“Some are joking,’’ he said. “I think some are serious.’’
That, of course, drew a big laugh.
“I talked to Dave Stockton Sr., last night on the putting green,’’ he said. “He said he experienced that same thing when he was out on TOUR; that he would give some putting lessons and guys would have some success.
“... And he said, what you have to do is, if you're going to help a guy is just tell the guy you never got help from me, so the word doesn't get out. That's not the way I am, I guess.’’
Stricker, one of the best putters on TOUR, refuses to get caught up in the buzz. He’s got enough going on managing his game now that he’s trimmed his schedule back, although he has finished in the top 5 in the three events he’s played in 2013.
“There's a fine line there watching out and taking care of yourself and making sure if somebody asks for help that you still can give it to them,’’ he said.
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
DORAL, Fla. -- Steve Stricker decision to cut back on his schedule has paid big dividends.
In three starts this season, the 46-year-old has finished second, fifth and second.
Even though Stricker didn't win Sunday at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, he left TPC Blue Monster pleased.
"I'm happy the way I'm playing," said Stricker, who shot a final-round 68 to finish two strokes behind winner Tiger Woods. "It's been a good start to the year. Been on the short end a couple times but played some pretty solid golf and am putting the ball better."
Ironically, it was a putting lesson earlier i nthe week that Stricker gave to Woods that helped Woods to his fewest putts ever in a four-round tournament.
With Woods leading by four going into the final round, Stricker didn't exactly have a lot of faith in being able to catch him.
"You don't have a lot of ‑‑ what's the right word ‑‑ belief that he's going to come back to the field I guess," he said. "He's been so solid with 54‑hole leads over his career that you just don't think he's going to come back. And he didn't again."
And Stricker played some of his best golf again after arriving in South Florida rested.
"I just feel like there's little pressure on me out there," Stricker said. "I'm having really a lot of fun. I know deep down that I'm only playing 11 times, and that excites me. But I also get very pumped up and excited to play when I do come out. I work at it hard still at home but in the back of my mind, it's just coming out and having fun, trying to play good golf and see what happens."
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
DORAL, Fla. -- Sometimes less is more, at least for Steve Stricker.
At the end of last year, Stricker thought about playing the 2013 opener in Maui, then hanging up his spikes for good.
Instead, he decided to simply cut back on his schedule, saying he'd limit himself to about 10 events this season. It seems to be paying dividends.
Stricker finished second at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, took six weeks off, then reached the quarterfinals of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship before losing.
Going into the weekend at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, Stricker again finds himself in contention after a 67 in the second round.
He trails leader Tiger Woods, whom he helped with his putting earlier in the week, by three.
"I feel good about the decision that I've made," Stricker said. "I'm enjoying it and I can tell in my attitude out here. The biggest thing is I'm coming out here rested, refreshed, excited to play and it's showing in my game, too."
Through his first 36 holes at TPC Blue Monster, Stricker has made 11 birdies and just one bogey. He's also eighth in the field in greens hit and has taken just 53 total putts.
While Stricker doesn't expect the rest of his season to have as long of a break between starts as he did earlier this year, the time off has clearly helped the 46-year-old.
As for whether he regrets giving that putting lesson to the player he's now trying to catch?
"Yes and no," Stricker said. "Not really. It's good to see him putting well and playing well. It's good for us, it's good for the game."
Just like fewer starts have been for Stricker.
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
MARANA, Ariz. -- This battle of former Accenture Match Play Championship winners didn't disappoint.
Ian Poulter put a damper on Steve Stricker's 46th birthday, though, as he pulled away in the middle of the round for his 24th vicory in 33 matches in this global event.
Poulter actually made his first -- and only bogey -- in his last three matches at No. 1 as Stricker was in the process of making birdie there to go 1 up. The Englishman got back on track quickly, though, as he rolled in birdie putts of 5 and 40 feet on the next two holes to take the lead the bulldog would not relinquish.
While Poulter was sizing up that 40-footer, Stricker actually was looking at his own 7-footer for birdie at the third hole to possibly win it himself.
"Steve is always a tough person to beat, and he was going to play some good golf today," Poulter said. "That's exactly what he did. I managed to keep my nose in front, I guess, with a typical match play swing on the par-3 third hole. It looks like Steve is going to be going up right there, and I hole, he misses. And from then on I sort of took over and got myself in front."
Poulter holed a chip at the sixth hole for a 2-up lead and then drained a 25-footer for eagle at the par-5 eighth to go one better. Stricker's 4-footer for birdie at the 10th hole narrowed the gap to 2 down but Poulter responded with two consecutive birdies to take a 4-up lead.
A conceded birdie at the 14th hole gave Stricker a glimmer of hope at 3 down but the next two holes were halved with a birdie and a par and Poulter was on to the next round.
SCORECARD STATS: Poulter made six birdies, one eagle and one bogey. Stricker made four birdies and one bogey.
HOLES WON: Poulter won six holes. Stricker won three holes.
NEXT OPPONENT: Poulter plays Hunter Mahan, who beat Webb Simpson 1 up in the quarterfinals.
MARANA, Ariz. -- Steve Stricker is one of the PGA TOUR's most understated stars. But the veteran showed a flair for the dramatic on Saturday when he birdied the last two holes to come from behind and beat Scott Piercy 1 up.
Stricker, who turned 46 on Saturday, two-putted the par-5 eighth from 33 feet for the first birdie before he drained a putt from 31 for the win. That was the only time Stricker led in the hard-fought match that started on No. 10.
"It was a tough putt," Stricker said. "It was downhill, downgrain, and he had five or six feet left, and I was just making sure I wasn't going to give myself the same comeback or so. I wanted to make sure I had good speed, but I had a pretty good feel for the line. ... But you don't expect to make a putt like that.
"We both played great, and that's match play. He didn't make a bogey today and neither did I, and neither one of us really deserve to go home. But I'm very excited to be moving on."
Piercy grabbed a 1-up lead three different times during the match and each time Stricker managed to even the proceedings. It took Stricker two holes the first two times Piercy led and four holes the third but he ended up making the putts when it counted.
SCORECARD STATS: Stricker made eight birdies and no bogeys. Piercy made seven birdies and no bogeys. The Accenture Match Play Championship rookie has not made a bogey in his last two matches, in fact.
HOLES WON: Stricker won four holes. Piercy won three holes.
NEXT OPPONENT: Ian Poulter, who beat Tim Clark 5 and 3.
"It's going to be tough," Stricker said. "He's a good match play player. ... But I'm playing well. I like what I'm doing. I like how I'm hitting it. I'm making a lot of putts. I can't give him any holes. That's the key to this match play, I think, is just stay in every hole and make the other guy beat you."