PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Chad Ramey managed to avoid stress and bogeys Thursday in The Players Championship for an 8-under-par 64, making him an unlikely leader on a course that rarely fails to deliver a surprise.
Ramey had a one-shot lead over two-time major champion Collin Morikawa in mild conditions on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Roughly half the field was at par or better.
That doesn't mean the first round was devoid of drama.
Hayden Buckley made an ace on the famed island green at the 17th, a hole he had seen only on TV until he arrived this week for his debut at the PGA Tour's big event.
Aaron Wise lost four balls in a span of two holes: in the water on the 17th, and then three straight tee shots in the drink left of the 18th fairway, where he stumbled to a 10, one short of the record for highest score on the closing hole.
Rory McIlroy, who's No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking, had his highest score in just more than a year. The 2019 winner of this tournament, the four-time major champ from Northern Ireland opened with a 6, closed with a 6 and was pretty ordinary in between on his way to a 76.
Ramey had no such problems, putting for birdie on all but two holes during the slightly more peaceful morning conditions.
"I might have made it look that way, but it wasn't easy at all," Ramey said. "It was fun. First time to shoot a score on such an iconic course like this. You can't ask for any more."
Ramey qualified for his first trip to The Players Championship by winning in the Dominican Republic last year against a weak field in a PGA Tour event held opposite the Dell Match Play, a World Golf Championship.
The 30-year-old from Mississippi believes he belongs and can beat anyone, even the strongest field of the year so far. His record wouldn't suggest that, even with the victory. In his 28 starts since then, Ramey has missed 18 cuts and failed to finish in the top 20 in the other tournaments.
"The game has felt really close," Ramey said. "I know the scores haven't showed it, but it's felt really close. I just made one little tweak in my swing, and it really seems to be paying off. I kind of hit the ball where I was looking most of the day, and then whenever I did get out of position, I did a pretty good job getting back in."
Morikawa has missed two cuts in his past three starts, rare for him, and spent extra time in his days off trying to find that fade that has carried him to so much early success. The 26-year-old Californian thinks he is swinging it now as well as he did a few years ago.
His signature shot was a 4-iron for a three-foot eagle putt on the par-5 second hole, his 11th of the day, and it came during an eight-hole stretch he played in 6 under. Morikawa also played without a bogey, key on a course that can strike without notice.
"The game feels really good, and I'm just going to take that into the next few days and just kind of use that momentum to hopefully play three more really good rounds," he said.
Ben Griffin and Canada's Taylor Pendrith were tied for third at 67, while Justin Suh also was at 5 under with three holes to finish before darkness suspended play. Of the field's 144 players, 21 will have to complete the first round Friday morning.
Second-ranked Scottie Scheffler led the group at 68. He was part of the marquee group that featured the top three players in the world, joined by McIlroy and No. 1 Jon Rahm (71). All have a chance to end up at No. 1 even without winning.
Otherwise, it was an eclectic mix of players at 69 or better, which is not unusual for this course. It ranged from first-timers such as Ramey and Australia's Min Woo Lee — the younger brother of LPGA star Minjee Lee — to major champs such as Scheffler, Justin Rose (69) and Jordan Spieth (69).
Spieth nearly won in his Players Championship debut in 2014, losing to Martin Kaymer. He has missed the cut in five of his past seven appearances at this tournament.
"It's just one of those places where I felt like the way I played was really good a lot of times, and then I look at the board here, and I'm like, 'Huh. I'm not even in the top 10.' That's just the way this tournament has been for me," he said.
Xander Schauffele was a runner-up in his debut (though four shots behind) and then missed the cut in his next three appearances. He looked like he was headed for another early departure when he was 4 over through 10 holes Thursday and had only three pars on his card, but he followed with an eagle on the 11th and added three other birdies to get back to 72.
All four Baylor School graduates on the PGA Tour are at TPC Sawgrass, but it will take some work for that to be true this weekend. Keith Mitchell was rolling with three straight birdies before following with back-to-back bogeys on the fifth and sixth holes, and his back nine included two more birdies but also a run of three straight bogeys from 13 to 15.
He wound up even, and the 72 that had him tied for 49th was the best of the Baylor bunch, with Stephan Jaeger (74) tied for 94th, Luke List (77) tied for 127th and Harris English (78) tied for 136th. English is coming off a runner-up finish last weekend at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his best showing since winning twice in 2021.
The 17th hole had a front pin, typically not seen until Saturday's round, and delivered plenty of excitement, good and bad. Buckley flung his cap into the air after his ball rolled down the slope and into the cup.
Kelly Kraft hit two into the water on his way to a quadruple-bogey 7. He had an 80 for the round, one of four players who shot that number or higher.
The weather on this day didn't warrant such a score. The nature of the course allows for it just about every year.
"You just don't get a lot of holes that you can kind of coast on," Sam Burns said after his 68. "Every shot has your attention here."