PONTE VEDRE BEACH – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – When things are going well in golf, the aim is to keep that momentum, no matter what it takes. On a track as difficult to dominate as the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and a tournament as tough as The Players Championship, synergy — when the results are actually better than the sum of its parts — can be the most important attribute to carry in the bag.
Stadium Course – TPC Sawgrass
Both William McGirt and Mackenzie Hughes of Canada produced what it took to leap to the front of the pack on Thursday, fashioning 5-under-par 67s to take a one-stroke lead over arguably the most loaded field in golf after the first round of The Players Championship, contested in warm and mostly benign conditions in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
J.B. Holmes, Alex Noren of Sweden, Chez Reavie and Jon Rahm of Spain are a shot back after shooting 68s, and 11 players, including Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, Francesco Molinari of Italy, Daniel Berger and Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain are another stroke back after finishing in 69.
McGirt, who won the 2016 Memorial Tournament, had three birdies on the front-nine and eagled both of the par-5s on the back-nine to offset two bogeys.
McGirt is just the 26th player to record two eagles in one round during The Players Championship and just the sixth to do so on the back-nine at TPC Sawgrass. The eagles were at No. 11 and No. 16, and it was the first time in tournament history that one player accomplished that feat in the first round.
“I just had good numbers at a good time and made a good swing at a good time,” McGirt said. “There’s no answer, honestly; you just kind of see the shot and hit the shot and see the putt and hit the putt. That’s probably the third or fourth time, maybe even fifth time, that I’ve eagled 11. I eagled 16 last year for the first time.
“It was a matter of having a good day,” McGirt said of his round. “I don’t know that you can really learn this golf course, because with this place if you hit one that lands four or five feet off the putting surface, there’s no telling what’s going to happen to it.”
Hughes’ round was much more conventional, with five birdies and no bogeys on his card thanks to a scrambling par from the trees on the closing hole. He is also a one-time winner, capturing the 2017 RSM Classic in October.
Hughes had only played 36 total holes on the Stadium Course — all in practice this week — before teeing it up on Thursday afternoon.
“The round today it was very solid,” Hughes said. “To go bogey-free around this place is very difficult to do, obviously, and when I started the day, I wouldn’t have expected a round like that but I knew my game was trending. It was just one of those days. It wasn’t perfect golf, but I managed it really well and made a few nice saves when I needed to and made a few nice putts.”
Phil Mickelson, defending champion Jason Day of Australia, Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott of Australia are among those who shot 70 and are three strokes behind. Germany’s Bernhard Langer, at 59 the oldest player in the field, heads a large group at 71 that also includes world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
“My day is kind of summed up on the first hole when I one-hopped it into the flag and it came off the green and I made bogey,” Johnson explained. “You know, I hit two perfect shots and I make a 5 on No. 1, then hit two good shots on 2, and horseshoed a four- footer.
“That’s just kind of how my day went. I could never really get any momentum. I hit some good shots then I would lip-out the putt. I just kind of hung in there. The course definitely played tougher later in the day. But I’m OK with the round.”
Jordan Spieth and this year’s Masters champion, Sergio Garcia, both shot 73, but Garcia’s round was one he will never forget thanks to a hole in one on the famous island hole No. 17 at the Stadium Course. Garcia and Willy Wilcox have recorded holes in one on that par-3 hole in the past two years.
The three highest scores in the field on Thursday were produced by 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett (79), Scott Piercy (80) and Harris English (84), who had four double bogeys and a triple bogey on his scorecard.
NOTES: There were 18 balls hit into the water in the first round at the island green 17th hole. … Two players, David Toms (back) and Kevin Na (illness) withdrew from the tournament during Thursday’s round. … There have been five wire-to-wire winners in Players Championship history: Al Geiberger (1975), Australia’s Greg Norman (1994), Steve Elkington of Australia (1997), Hal Sutton (2000) and Jason Day of Australia (2016). … Tiger Woods (2001, 2013), Davis Love III (2003, 1992), Elkington (1991, 1997), Hal Sutton (1983, 2000), Fred Couples (1984, 1996) and Jack Nicklaus (1974, 1976 and 1978) are golfers with multiple wins at The Players Championship. … No player has gone all four rounds without a bogey in this tournament. Norman came the closest in 1994 with a single bogey in the final round on No. 13. He posted the tournament 72-hole record that year, 24-under-par 264