PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Martin Kaymer tied the TPC Sawgrass course record with his 63 on Thursday. He wasn’t the only one to take advantage of the first round’s soft conditions that left THE PLAYERS Stadium Course susceptible to low scores.
Sixty-seven players broke par Thursday, while 28 shot lower than 70. Kaymer is two shots ahead of Russell Henley, while Sang-Moon Bae is alone in third place after shooting 66. Eight players are tied for fourth at 5 under, including Sergio Garcia, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and Lee Westwood.
Kaymer shot the first nine-hole 29 in PLAYERS Championship history, doing so on the front nine (his closing nine), while Henley and Geoff Ogilvy tied the back-nine scoring record with 6-under 30s.
“You can be a little bit more aggressive because the greens are softer than the last few years, but it's not an easy golf course,” Kaymer said. “You have to hit a lot of fairways. If you hit the fairways then you can go for some flags, but once you're in the rough, especially with that grass and the Bermudagrass from the rough, it's very difficult to judge the distances. Then it's a very tricky golf course. But I hit a lot of fairways today, and therefore I could go for some flags.”
Kaymer’s point was proven in some of the high scores, of which there were plenty, including some big numbers from notable names. Forty-six players shot 75 and higher, including Phil Mickelson (75), Webb Simpson (75), Brandt Snedeker (75), Jimmy Walker (75), Louis Oosthuizen (77) and Adam Scott (77).
Thursday’s scoring average was 71.99 strokes. It wasn’t much lower than years past. The field averaged 72.01 strokes in last year’s first round, 72.37 in 2012 and 72.22 the previous year. Sixty-seven players broke par in the first round last year – the same number as this year -- compared to 54 in 2012 and 60 in 2011.
“It’s a little bit softer and slower than normal, the fairways aren’t really running out like they do,” Scott Stallings said after shooting 67.
Afternoon scoring was about a stroke higher – 72.56, compared to 71.43 in the morning -- because of a gentle breeze, but that is commonplace at TPC Sawgrass, which is just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Afternoon scores are higher at most PGA TOUR events because of calmer morning conditions and fresher greens.
“That’s the big defense around this place, when those greens get firm and fast,” Bill Haas said after his first-round 68. He said Thursday’s afternoon breeze didn’t have much impact on the afternoon starters.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to get away from it. Ten to 15 (mph) is not blowing that hard,” he said. “That’s kind of what we got this afternoon.”
"Ballstriking-wise, that's one of the best rounds I've ever played." -- Martin Kaymer, who missed just 2 fairways and 1 green on Thursday.— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 8, 2014
CONSERVATIVE APPROACH: Russell Henley already has won once at TPC Sawgrass. He claimed the Web.com Tour’s Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open in fall 2012 at the Dye’s Valley Course, which is located on the other side of the driving range. Henley is in contention for the "Sawgrass Slam" after shooting 65 on Thursday.
This is Henley’s second PLAYERS. He missed the cut last year after shooting 69-76. His debut taught him to take a more conservative game plan. He chose to hit fairway woods from more tees this year.
“Playing some of the holes a little less aggressive has helped me to stay in there and make some pars," Henley, 25, said.
He made nine birdies Thursday and one double-bogey, after hitting his tee shot at the par-4 seventh hole into the water. He responded by shooting 30 on the back nine.
“I knew I was playing well and felt really comfortable on the greens," said Henley, who's No. 28 in the FedExCup after winning his second PGA TOUR title at this year's Honda Classic. "As long as I keep feeling comfortable with the putter, I think I can putt well on these greens.”
POSITIVE PERSPECTIVE: Sergio Garcia, the 2008 PLAYERS champion, opened this year’s event with a 5-under 67.
Much of Garcia’s good play has been credited to good feelings off the golf course, including his relationship with girlfriend Katharina Boehm, who caddied for him in his Thailand Golf Championship victory in December. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano has seen a change in his friend.
“Not long ago he was a bit grumpy on the course and he never seemed to enjoy what he was doing,” said Fernandez-Castano, who shot 67 Thursday. “I remember I had a talk with him in Munich not that long ago, and I said, ‘Sergio, you do not have to do this if you don’t enjoy it.’ … I think now everything has clicked again, and it’s great to see him with a smile and enjoying life again.”
Considering Garcia’s recent form and record at TPC Sawgrass, it should be no surprise that the Spaniard is contending once again. He has finished in the top 25 in half his PLAYERS starts, and missed the cut just twice. He’s won twice since December, at the Thailand Golf Championship and Qatar Masters, and has four top-10s in seven PGA TOUR starts this season.
Garcia was tied with Tiger Woods for THE PLAYERS Championship lead last year when he arrived at No. 17 in the final round. Garcia hit two shots in the water surrounding the island green en route to quadruple-bogey, then hit another into the water at No. 18. He played the final two holes in 6 over to fall to eighth place.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click below to check out our favorite images from the first round at TPC Sawgrass.
LEFTY'S STRUGGLES CONTINUE: Phil Mickelson’s frustrating season continued Thursday. Mickelson seemed to show promising signs at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, where he had a season-best T11 finish. He shot 63 in the third round at Quail Hollow Golf Club.
He shot 75 on Thursday and is in danger of missing the PLAYERS cut for the second consecutive year.
“I don’t feel like any parts of the game are bad,” Mickelson said. “I just have a hard time seeing the ball go in the hole and getting it to go in the hole.”
Mickelson made bogey on No. 10, his first hole Thursday, then made eight consecutive pars to turn in 1-over 37. He returned to even par with a birdie at No. 4, but made bogey on three of his final five holes to shoot 75. It was his highest score at TPC Sawgrass since the final round in 2009.
Mickelson wasn’t the only big name to struggle. Adam Scott hit shots in the water on Nos. 17 and 18 and closed his round with consecutive double-bogeys to shoot 77.
CALL OF THE DAY: Dennis Paulson of PGA TOUR RADIO on SiriusXM and PGATOUR.COM calls Martin Kaymer's approach on No. 9 that set up his final putt for a course record-tying 63. Live coverage from TPC Sawgrass will stream Friday from 12-7 p.m. ET on PGATOUR.COM.
McILROY STILL TROUBLED AT TPC SAWGRASS: Rory McIlroy continues to be confounded by TPC Sawgrass. The two-time major champion was 5 under after 11 holes but he played the final seven holes in 3 over to shoot 70. McIlroy missed the cut in his first three PLAYERS Championships then finished T8 last year.
Two of McIlroy’s three bogeys on the closing holes came on the front nine’s par-3s, Nos. 3 and 8. He missed the tee shot left on both holes then failed to get up-and-down.
“A couple little stupid mistakes, but the game was in good shape and if it wasn't just for that bad stretch of seven holes at the end, it would have been obviously a much different story,” McIlroy said.
He hit nine of the first 11 greens in regulation, but hit just three of the final seven.
McIlroy has finished in the top 10 in three of his past four PGA TOUR starts, including a playoff loss at The Honda Classic and three consecutive top-10s at the Shell Houston Open, Masters Tournament and last week’s Wells Fargo Championship.
SPIETH STELLAR ONCE AGAIN: Jordan Spieth is back in contention at a big event. The Masters runner-up shot 67 in the first round of his PLAYERS Championship debut. Playing alongside Zach Johnson and Graeme McDowell helped him in his debut. “You can kind of play off different shots that they’re hitting if they’re teeing off first,” Spieth said. “I felt comfortable all day.”
What a start for the week! Hit and rolled it great today, let's keep it going! #theplayerschampionship— Gonzalo Fdez-Castaño (@gfcgolf) May 8, 2014
FDEZ-CASTANO ADJUSTING: Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano’s first full season on the PGA TOUR hasn’t gone as planned, though Thursday’s 67 was a positive sign. He has just one top-25 in 11 starts, a T24 at The Honda Classic. There’s been a lot of adjustment, though. Not only is he playing his first season in the United States. He’s moved here, as well. His family moved to Key Biscayne, Fla., in December.
“I’ve always dreamt about playing here, and it would have been stupid not to do it,” the Spaniard said.
“I could hardly break 80 on the first couple of tournaments of the year. I guess it took me awhile to not only get used to the PGA TOUR, but getting settled in Miami. I think that’s already done, we are over that, and I have no excuses now, so I’d better start breaking 80 on a regular basis.”
ODDS AND ENDS
• Kaymer’s career-low round is a 10-under 62, set earlier this season at the 2013 HSBC Champions (finished T8). His previous-best score at THE PLAYERS was an opening-round 67 in 2011.
• Kaymer is making his sixth start at THE PLAYERS, with a T15 in 2012 and T19 in 2011 his best outings. He has never missed a cut at the event, with a T55 in his inaugural appearance in 2009 his worst showing.
• The first-round leader or co-leader has gone on to win THE PLAYERS 12 times since the tournament began in 1974, most recently Sergio Garcia in 2008. There have been four wire-to-wire winners: Al Geiberger (1975), Greg Norman (1994), Steve Elkington (1997) and Hal Sutton (2000).
• Just one week before he will defend his 2013 win at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, Sang-Moon Bae turned in a 6-under 66 to sit solo third and three strokes behind Martin Kaymer.
• Gary Woodland missed the cut in his first two starts at THE PLAYERS Championship, recording rounds of 75-71 in 2011 and 77-73 in 2012. He’s off to a better start this year, opening with a 5-under 67.
Category Round 1 leader Statistic Driving distance
Fairways hit Brian Davis
13 of 14 Greens in regulation Martin Kaymer
17 of 18 Strokes gained-putting Russell Henley 3.576 Total birdies Russell Henley