Advantage Rory Mcllroy then. The world No1 claims he has no interest in the prospect of a scrap with Jordan Spieth. His on-course approach suggests otherwise.
Four days after claiming the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship, thereby extending his advantage at the top of the rankings, McIlroy easily outshone the Masters champion Spieth – one of his playing partners – on day one of the Players Championship.
McIlroy’s 69 represented the ideal tournament start. Spieth slipped to a 75 which leaves a battle simply to make the cut. This was not in the script for the home crowd, from whom the 10th – the three-ball’s 1st – tee roar for Spieth exceeded the one for McIlroy. The blunt reality is McIlroy remains the superior golfer.
That starting point was pertinent. McIlroy has an incredible record on the Sawgrass back nine, where he now holds an aggregate of 27-under over seven rounds. On the outward half his total is an equally staggering plus 11. The 26-year-old duly reached the turn in 33, with a bogey on the 1st offset by a birdie at the 8th. The last time McIlroy opened a tournament with a 60-something round, at the Dubai Desert Classic, he lifted the trophy.
“I think anything in the 60s is a decent score today,” McIlroy said. “Being able to limit your mistakes, that’s something that I need to do around this golf course. I’ve got off to a decent start doing that today.”
Spieth, in contrast, cut an agitated figure. His play was sloppy, such as at the 3rd where he chipped over the green. On the next tee the Masters champion slammed his three wood into the ground in disgust. This was not the kind of mark Spieth had intended to leave in such illustrious company and sharp a spotlight. “It was a really tough ball-striking day,” he admitted.
“Sometimes when you’re hitting it really well you just get tough breaks and you have a bad day. This wasn’t one of those. I really need to find something on the range. If I didn’t putt well today it could have gone up there towards 80.”
Spieth is nothing if not candid. Jason Day, the other member of the marquee group, produced a wonderful putting performance in matching McIlroy’s three-under total.
Rickie Fowler reached six-under par through 11 holes but had his wings clipped slightly by a double bogey on the way in for a 69. Fowler has struggled this year, not so long after it was he who was supposedly on the verge of a long-term battle for honours with McIlroy.
“We’re all good buddies,” Fowler said. “So I don’t think there’s going to be a hate rivalry or anything like that. There’s a lot of really good young players right now so you’re going to see a group of 10 or so guys where any given week there could be two guys out in contention and that’s the rivalry for the week.
“Rory and Jordan have distanced themselves as of right now being one and two in the world, Rory especially with the way he’s played the past year, year and a half. So some of us have some work to do to even talk about a rivalry, but I’m up for it. It’s nice to be back playing well.”
Tiger Woods displayed equal flashes of brilliance and slackness in his afternoon round of 73. Having birdied the 17th, Woods made double bogey at the last. Darren Clarke, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, lasted 11 holes before succumbing to a right wrist injury.
The most endearing leaderboard sight is of Marc Leishman. The Australian was an absentee from the Masters with his wife, Audrey, in hospital battling toxic shock syndrome. She was given a 5% chance of survival by doctors at one stage. Leishman signed for a 69 here, with Audrey among the spectators by the final green.
“I didn’t actually see her until I putted out on the last,” Leishman said. “But that was great, to see her sitting up there on top of the hill. She’s not able to walk the course at all yet, but just to have her out there is pretty awesome.
“From where she’s come from about a month ago it didn’t look like she was going to be around and then to, four or five weeks later, to be seeing her up on the back of the green when I’m playing, that’s pretty special. I took that for granted a little bit, but definitely not any more.”
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