PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods made birdie on every par 5 for the first time since 2006 and broke 70 in the opening round for the first time ever in The Players Championship. Rory McIlroy didn’t use his driver on the front nine and broke par for the first time on the TPC Sawgrass.
Ryan Palmer made only one cut in seven tries — the other year, he finished next-to-last — so he stayed home in Texas this time and didn’t show up until Wednesday. He ran off five straight birdies on his way to a 67.
After all these years, everyone keeps looking for the secret on how to play Sawgrass. And then along came Roberto Castro, who had never played this tournament. He didn’t know where to look and wound up in the record book twice.
In an opening round when everything went right, Castro had a 9-under 63 to tie the course record held by Fred Couples and Greg Norman. It gave him a three-shot lead over McIlroy and Zach Johnson, matching the record for the largest 18-hole margin set by Billy Ray Brown in 1992.
Welcome to Sawgrass.
“I hit it close a lot,” said Castro, making it sound as easy as it looked.
And it did look easy. Castro never had a birdie putt longer than 10 feet, and on four of his birdies, he never had to line up the putt. He hit a 9-iron to just outside a foot on the famed and fearsome island-green 17th hole. He hit 4-iron to about the same distance on the 18th hole, the toughest on the golf course. He also hit a 3-iron to about 3 feet on the par-5 second hole for an eagle.
“I don’t think anyone has figured out what the secret is to this place,” Castro said.
For starters, it helped to be playing in the morning. The conditions were rarely so perfect, with a blue sky and not a trace of wind on a beautifully manicured golf course with smooth putting surfaces.
Castro, McIlroy and Johnson all played in the morning. Half of the field who teed off in the morning broke par.
That’s what made Woods feel good about his 67 in the afternoon, even though he lost a chance at his first bogey-free round in 16 appearances at The Players. His 8-iron from 200 yards on the final hole went long, and he flubbed his first chip up the slope and didn’t reach the green.
Even so, it was a hard day of work and he felt rewarded.
“It doesn’t take much to make a bogey around here,” Woods said. I think that’s what Pete (Dye) had intended, and I’m sure that most of the guys throughout their careers really haven’t had too many other days that are spotless on their cards.”
Here’s something else Woods rarely sees at Sawgrass — being nine shots behind before he even tees off.
Such was the case when Castro posted his 63, and it was particularly daunting considering that Woods had never shot in the 60s in the opening round.
“It was a day that I felt I had to shoot something in the 60s,” Woods said, and he did just that on the strength of four birdies around the turn.
Vijay Singh, playing one day after he sued the PGA Tour for its handling of his doping case, was largely ignored while playing in the group behind Woods. One fan wore felt deer antlers in the bleachers behind the first tee — Singh’s case involved taking deer antler spray — but only a dozen or so people followed the 50-year-old Fijian on the back nine and it was a quiet day.
At one point, Singh let out a hearty laugh walking off the tee with Robert Garrigus and J.J. Henry. His golf wasn’t the subject of the laughter. Singh hit into the water on the last hole and made bogey for a 74, leaving him in danger of missing the cut.
Garrigus, who had a 72, tried to made the best of it.
“I kind of made fun of it today on the first tee just to loosen things up a little bit, which I do very well,” Garrigus said. “I was like, ‘Well, you’re in the spotlight right now, aren’t you big guy?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, for the wrong reasons.’ It was fun.”
They laughed, and Garrigus let it go for the rest of the round.
“I didn’t get into it,” he said. “I don’t know the details; I don’t know what he’s suing for and all that stuff. He’s obviously earned the respect until everything goes through. That’s what I’m saying about that.”
Woods’ bogey put him in a large group at 67 that included Palmer, Steve Stricker, Webb Simpson and Casey Wittenberg. Palmer was told that Matt Kuchar didn’t show up last year until Wednesday, and he wound up winning.
“There may be something brewing here,” Palmer said. “If we drive the ball good the rest of the week, we might have a chance.”
McIlroy also played in the morning, in the same group as Masters champion Adam Scott (69) and Steve Stricker (67). The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland had never made the cut or even broken par at The Players, but McIlroy figured it out on a gorgeous morning by dialing it back off the tee and letting his iron play take over. McIlroy never came seriously close to a bogey, and he didn’t hit driver once on the front nine.
“When you hit the shots, it seems very simple,” McIlroy said. “I had a lot of good shots out there, lot of iron shots that were 12, 15 feet away from the pin and I got myself a lot of looks for birdies. I adopted maybe more of a conservative strategy off the tee this year. But once you put your ball in the fairway that means you can be more aggressive into the greens. So it sort of balances itself out.”
But the punishment is never far away, as Scott Stallings discovered. He opened with five straight birdies to get everyone’s attention, but after going out in 31, Stallings gave most of it back with a bogey, double bogey and a triple bogey on the 16th when he hit two balls into the water. He shot 40 on the back for a 71.
“It just goes to show about the golf course and really how volatile it is,” Stallings said.
Padraig Harrington found that out. He made an eagle on the second hole, and followed that with a double bogey.