Sergio Garcia opened with a 7-under 65 and will take a two-shot lead into the second round of the PLAYERS Championship.
A winner here in 2008, along with four additional top-4 finishes, Garcia was a popular sleeper pick leading into Thursday’s opener at TPC Sawgrass.
“I don’t know, I just love it. I’ve always said it, Valderrama and this course are some of my top favorite ones and for some reason they just, it just kind of fits my eye,” said Garcia, when about his history with the Pete Dye design golf course.
“I see what I want to do pretty much every hole and then it’s a matter of doing it, but it definitely I feel more comfortable and I’ve done well. So all those things help.”
The Spaniard’s round was punctuated by a pair of eagles, one of which headlined a final three-hole scoring blitz (birdie-eagle-birdie) which separated him from a jammed-up leaderboard.
The 65 bested Garcia’s previous 20 openings at the Players. He’d twice scored 65 (2013 Rd2, 2011 Rd4) but never in the first round. Overall, Garcia finished his first day in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida with two eagles and four birdies against just one bogey.
Brian Harman was two back after a round 5-under 67. The lefthander got off to an uneven start on Thursday, mixing an equal number of birdies, pars and bogeys to turn on even-par 36. But the 34-year old got into the groove on his homeward nine, starting with a hat trick of birdies on Nos. 10, 11, and 12. He added two more gains on 15 and 16 to secure day one’s silver medal.
“After I drove it well on 10, I felt like I could kind of turn it loose a little bit and that’s kind of what happened,” said Harman, when asked what clicked after the turn.
Matthew Fitzpatrick, Corey Conners and Shane Lowry were tied for third-place on 4 under.
Lowry, the 2019 Open winner, was 5 under through 11 holes, and appeared to be threatening Garcia’s hold on the marquee spot. But the Irishman wasn’t able to score down the stretch and dropped a shot on the final hole to sign for a 68.
“It’s nice to go out there and shoot a decent score. I’m pretty happy,” said Lowry, who’s yet to post a top 10 in nine worldwide starts this season.
“I didn’t do much different than I have been, holed a few putts that managed to go in. It was quite nice.
“Difficult golf course. I watched a bit of the golf this morning and I could see how difficult it was playing and, but that excites me. That kind of gets me, gets my juices flowing, and I like that type of golf.”
Following a solo runner-up finish at Bay Hill, Lee Westwood is once again in the mix. The 47-year old Englishman shot 69 and was among a group of six players tied at 3 under.
“Obviously I built a lot of confidence last week, and this is a place where I’ve played a lot and I’ve played well before,” said Westwood, who hit 17 of 18 greens, and finished with five birdies.
“The key for me really coming in here is getting fresh again. So I didn’t do anything on Monday, just played nine holes on Tuesday, nine holes Wednesday. Really just trying to reenergize my body and be ready to go 100 percent this morning.”
The man who beat Westwood last Sunday was also in the T6 group. Bryson DeChambeau had an up and down day but finished his final three holes with two birdies and a par to secure a position as a first page chaser.
One further back was a logjam of 14 players at 2 under, including headliners such as Patrick Reed, Jason Day, and a clearly resurgent Jordan Spieth.
For Spieth this marks his fifth straight opening-round of 2-under par or better, and the fifth consecutive start where he’s finished in the first-round’s top-15.
“I think I hit 12 of 14 fairways out here and I pulled driver around the place, so I don’t know if I’ve ever done that here,” said Spieth.
“So from the spots I was playing and the shots I hit into greens mid-air, I would have said I should have shot lower, but at the beginning of the day, I would have certainly signed for 70.
“But I feel really good about today overall as far as if I’m continuing down the path of, kind of the way things felt today, I feel like lower scores could come from it, which is really nice around this track.”
Pre tournament favorites Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, and Webb Simpson were among a group of 16 players tied at 1 under.
Phil Mickelson was also at 1 under. The 50-year old Lefty closed birdie-par-birdie to get into the red numbers.
Dustin Johnson opened with a 73. The world No. 1 couldn’t get much of anything going, matching one birdie with one bogey to turn on even par. An approach into the water on the par-5 11th hole was the round ruiner. He’d offset it five holes later with an eagle on the par-5 16th, but then dropped a shot on the next hole to finish 1 over.
Rory McIlroy, paired with Garcia, posted a 7-over 79 and was 14 off the pace of his Ryder Cup teammate.
The defending champion opened with a double bogey-6, closed with a bogey-6 and at the midway point carded a quadruple bogey-8 en route to his worst day ever at TPC Sawgrass.
“I mean obviously the big number one 18 didn’t help and then doubling the 1st wasn’t helpful either,” said McIlroy. “So yeah, I just think just it’s hard to recover when you just haven’t played good.
“I mean regardless if you take that 18th hole out it still wasn’t a very good day.”
THE PLAYERS Championship
Pos-Player-To Par (Score)
1. Sergio Garcia -7 (65)
2. Brian Harman -5 (67)
3. Matthew Fitzpatrick -4 (68)
3. Corey Conners -4 (68)
3. Shane Lowry -4 (68)
6. Bryson DeChambeau -3 (69)
6. Lee Westwood -3 (69)
6. Tom Hoge -3 (69)
6. Denny McCarthy -3 (69)
6. Rory Sabbatini -3 (69)
6. Will Zalatoris -3 (69)
World Top-10 Ranked Players
Rank-Player-To Par (Pos)
1. Dustin Johnson +1 (T60)
2. Jon Rahm E (T42)
3. Justin Thomas -1 (T26)
4. Collin Morikawa -1 (T26)
5. Xander Schauffele +4 (T112)
6. Bryson DeChambeau -3 (T6)
7. Tyrrell Hatton +4 (T112)
8. Patrick Reed -2 (T12)
9. Patrick Cantlay +2 (T85)
10. Webb Simpson -1 (T26)