Rory McIlroy shares lead with two others at Players Championship

AP photo by Lynne Sladky / Rory McIlroy follows through on his tee shot for the 15th hole of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass during the first round of The Players Championship on Thursday in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
AP photo by Lynne Sladky / Rory McIlroy follows through on his tee shot for the 15th hole of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass during the first round of The Players Championship on Thursday in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Rory McIlroy had a lot of birdies and a little drama Thursday in The Players Championship.

All that mattered to him was having a share of the lead at the TPC Sawgrass.

McIlroy tied the tournament's record with 10 birdies, offset by two tee shots into the water on the Stadium Course, for his lowest start ever at the PGA Tour's flagship event. He had a 7-under-par 65 to share the lead with reigning U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark and Xander Schauffele.

Schauffele played a bogey-free round with two nervous moments toward the end, one leading to a birdie and another for an unlikely par save. Clark, already a winner this year at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, came on strong with three late birdies.

McIlroy tied the tournament record of 10 birdies, which had been most recently achieved by Cameron Smith in the final round of his 2022 victory. And to think: McIlroy had tee shots on the 18th and the seventh hole that he pulled into water.

"It would be nice to shoot 62 and not have two in the water," said McIlroy, whose 24 PGA Tour victories include the 2019 edition of this tournament.

England's Matt Fitzpatrick — who had one of 12 eagles on the par-5 16th — and Canada's Nick Taylor were a stroke behind the leaders, with seven others within two shots, a group that included top-ranked Scottie Scheffler, who in the 50th edition of The Players Championship is seeking to become its first repeat winner.

Three of the four Baylor School graduates in the field were among those tied for 22nd after Harris English, Luke List and Keith Mitchell each shot a 69. The other member of that quartet, Stephan Jaeger, was tied for 76th after a 72 in which he had dropped just one shot until a triple bogey on the 18th.

The field shrank by one to 143 when Tom Kim withdrew after eight holes due to illness.

The drama for McIlroy came not from the shots, but where to take his penalty drop. There were questions from Viktor Hovland and Jordan Spieth on the 18th — their ninth hole of the day — but that was sorted out, and McIlroy ripped a 3-wood onto the green and escaped with a bogey.

It was on the seventh hole that Hovland and Spieth wanted some clarity on whether the tee shot was above or below the red hazard line. That would be the difference of having to drop back by the tee or where it went into the water. Television replay didn't make it entirely clear.

There was one tense moment when Spieth said: "Everyone I'm hearing that had eyes on it ... is saying they were 100% certain it landed below the line."

"Who's everybody, Jordan?" replied McIlroy's caddie, Harry Diamond.

"Who are you talking about?" McIlroy added.

McIlroy was comfortable in saying it was above the line, played short of the green and wound up making a double bogey.

"I think Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing," McIlroy said. "I was pretty sure that my ball had crossed where I was sort of dropping it. It's so hard, right? Because there was no TV evidence. I was adamant. But I think, again, he was just trying to make sure that I was going to do the right thing."

Spieth had his own trouble and posted a 74, leaving him in danger of missing the cut at this tournament for the sixth time in 10 years. Hovland took a double bogey on his final hole for a 73.

Big drama on the course was otherwise limited, except for a few rounds in the 80s, none with outrageous numbers, just the typical punishment TPC Sawgrass can inflict without warning.

Schauffele thought he was headed for the water with drive to the right on the fifth hole, only for it to narrowly stay in the rough. He hit the next one to two feet from the hole. Then on the seventh, he was deep in the trees and hammered an 8-iron out of trouble, over water and a big bunker, and then onto the fairway.

"I would not want to hit that shot again," said Schauffele, who then hit a beautiful pitch to five feet to save par.

Calm weather by Florida standards in March and a soft layout made the opening round perhaps as easy as it will get. There also was a front pin on the island-green 17th, where Ryan Fox made a hole-in-one in a round of 69. It was third straight year at The Players Championship that someone made an ace on the fabled hole.

"It's such an iconic hole, and it's an intimidating shot," Fox said. "I don't care who you are. You get up there, most of the crowd probably either wants you to make a 1 or hit it in the water, so I'm glad to be on the right side of it in that respect."

Scheffler is not only No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, he is coming off a commanding performance last weekend, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club in Orlando. He missed only two fairways and three greens Thursday, and except for a three-putt bogey at the start, made it look easy.

That doesn't mean it was a stress-free round.

"This golf course is probably never easy," Scheffler said. "There may be a few easy holes here and there, but overall I think it's a pretty challenging place to play."

The average score was about 71.5 when play was suspended by darkness. Among those who have to finish the opening round Friday morning are Jimmy Stanger, who was 5 under with two to play. He was the last player to get into the field, a consequential gift when Tiger Woods did not enter.

Said Stanger: "I might be the only guy who was happy when Tiger decided not to play."

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