Rory McIlroy came out firmly on top in an early instalment of his so-called “rivalry” with Jordan Spieth on the opening day of the Players Championship at Sawgrass.
McIlroy and Spieth were placed in the same group for the first time since Spieth won the Masters to move to world number two behind McIlroy, who extended his lead in the rankings thanks to victory in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play on Sunday.
And the Holywood golfer continued that form todaywith an opening round of 69, three under par, to lie two shots off the clubhouse lead held by Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.
In contrast, Spieth struggled to a three-over 75 and showed his frustration by throwing his ball into the water after a bogey on the 16th, while the third member of the group, Australian Jason Day, matched McIlroy’s 69.
McIlroy, who needed just an eight iron from 205 yards to set up his eagle on the 16th, was pleased with his opening round, the result of maintaining a more conservative approach at Sawgrass.
“I think anything under par, and definitely anything in the 60s is a very good start today so I am pretty pleased with that,” said Rory.
“You just have to be very, very patient. I have a lot of pars on my card there. A lot of patience and picking up the birdies where you can.
“The first time I got here I felt it was a course where if you are playing well you should shoot 67 or 68 every time, but it’s not really like that.
“It can jump up and bite you very quickly and you have to know sometimes that par is a good score and you move on.”
McIlroy missed the cut on his first three appearances at Sawgrass and failed to break par in any of his six rounds, but carded an opening 66 in 2013 and went on to finish eighth, while closing rounds of 69 and 66 saw him improve to sixth place behind Ryder Cup team-mate Martin Kaymer 12 months ago.
Spieth played the final round alongside Kaymer last year before eventually finishing fourth, the 21-year-old having played his first 58 holes without a single bogey.
The chances of repeating that remarkable feat disappeared immediately as Spieth bogeyed his first two holes, and although he reduced the damage with a birdie on the 13th, another dropped shot on the 16th led to his ball coming to a watery end.
Spieth got back to one over with a birdie on the second but bogeyed the next two holes and told reporters his putting had saved him from shooting 80 and that he needed to “find something” on the range.
“Sometimes you have bad breaks and have a bad day. This wasn’t one of them,” Spieth said.
“I really struggled out there.”
Padraig Harrington opened with a one under par round of 71 while Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry ended the day on one over par.
Ryder Cup captain, Darren Clarke was forced to withdraw from the tournament after 11 holes citing a wrist injury sustained during warm-up on the range.
Darren said: “I tried to play because it is such a bit tournament but it become too painful and reluctantly I had to withdraw.
“With Wentworth and the Irish Open coming up, I did not want to jeopardise my chances of playing those by aggravating the problem.”
Darren hopes to be fit for BMW PGA Championship which starts on Thursday 21st May at Wentworth.