A wayward Rory McIlroy endured a dreadful start at the Players Championship after an opening four-over-par round of 76 at TPC Sawgrass left him 12 shots off the early lead.
The Northern Irishman was the odd man out in the marquee group of the first two rounds as Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler, the only two players ahead of him in the world rankings, both finished under par.
However, only Scheffler would be have been happy with his four-under 68 – Rahm finished one under – but that was still four adrift of the early leader Chad Ramey, a second-year PGA Tour professional and Players’ debutant whose 64 was just one short of equalling the course record.
Two-time major winner Collin Morikawa was another who showed low scoring was possible as his bogey-free round of five birdies and an eagle left him one off the pace.
But McIlroy could not take advantage of the same conditions as he began with a double-bogey six, ended with bogey six with three further bogeys and only two birdies in between.
Even when he did manage to get himself in position, producing some magic from under the trees at the par-five 16th, his seventh hole, but he three-putted to squander the eagle opportunity.
The Northern Irishman struggled off the tee, hitting just six of 14 fairways, and that caused him problems and he faces a real battle to stay in the tournament on Friday.
“You’ve got the four par-fives which are very gettable, and then you’ve got a few other holes, four and 12 specifically, so you’ve got six really gettable ones that if you’re on your game, you should be making birdie on those,” said McIlroy, the 2019 champion.
“I feel like this is as penal as I’ve seen it out of the rough for a long time. I think you’d have to go back to when the tournament was played in May, when we were in Bermuda rough, for it to be as penal as that.
“The three-putt on 16 was probably the one that sort of stopped any momentum.
“I hit a really good shot out of the pine straw there and didn’t capitalise on that and after making bogey on one and three sort of was tough to get it back from there.”
World number two Scheffler, who finished with three birdies in his final four holes, insisted outscoring his playing partners was not in his mindset and the quest to regain top spot in the rankings was a distant second to winning this week.
“I felt like I didn’t have my best stuff. I made a bunch of pars on the front nine but I’m proud of how I finished,” he said.
“I just kept plodding along and fortunately I saw some putts go in
“I wouldn’t want to get back to number one by finishing second in this tournament, the goal is to go out and try to win it.”
Rahm’s birdie putt at the ninth, his final hole, lipped out and he felt that was symptomatic of his round.
“It felt like a slap in the face on a day that,” said the Spaniard.
“I hit a lot of putts and just kept burning edges to go to one that looked like it was going in. It’s just what it is. It’s golf.”
Ramey, the 30-year-old from Mississippi whose only PGA Tour win came a year ago in his maiden season, had six birdies in his first 11 holes but turned on the style at the end as he birdied the par-five 16th and then hit it to a foot at the famous 17th to take the outright lead.
Morikawa missed a six-footer at the ninth, his last, to join Ramey but was happy with his round.
“Last week I kind of lost it, I didn’t know where the ball was going and I think this score showed I knew where the ball was going and that gave me a lot of freedom to play golf,” he told Sky Sports.
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Fellow American Hayden Buckley became only the 10th player since 1991 to have a hole-in-one at Sawgrass’ penultimate 125-yard hole – hitting a wedge beyond the pin and spinning it back into the cup.
However, Min Woo Lee, who had been suffering from cramp on his back nine, had an entirely different experience at the hole on his tournament debut.
He arrived holding the lead at six under but he hit his tee shot into the lake surrounding the green and only managed to escape with a bogey courtesy of a brilliant pitch shot from the drop zone.
The Australian then flirted with the water at the last before missing a 10-footer for par at the last to drop to four under.
England’s Justin Rose recovered from bogeying his second hole – his only dropped shot – to post a three-under 69, while the 2022 champion Justin Thomas chipped in for eagle at the second to move to two under.