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.”