PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — On a Thursday first round where The Players Championship leaderboard had a heavy dose of no-names, golf’s Big Three came up small until Scottie Scheffler erupted with five birdies in his final nine holes.
It wasn’t as easy as 1-2-3 for the top three players in the world – Jon Rahm, Scheffler and Rory McIlroy – to conquer the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
Rahm was victimized by a few suspect wedge shots and a cold putter, including a curl-out on a birdie attempt at his final hole (No. 9) that triggered one F-bomb of frustration. McIlroy was plagued by multiple deficiencies, which resulted in him taking a combined 17 shots out of thick rough (combination of Bermuda and a rye overseed), sand traps or pine straw.
“I feel like this is as penal as I’ve seen it out of the rough for a long time,” said McIlroy. “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. So yeah, you don’t hit it on the fairway here, you’re going to struggle.”
For three players who have played ping-pong with the No. 1 world ranking since last March, little of the magnificence of them producing a combined 13 PGA Tour wins in 13 months and six career major championships was on display.
None of them got into red figures until Rahm birdied No. 16, his seventh hole of the day. The only member of the trio who seized any momentum was Scheffler, whose three birdies on the last four holes from 9, 16 and 2 feet led to a solid four-under-par 68 and a sixth-place tie after Thursday’s suspended first round.
Otherwise, the gallery that showed up before 8 a.m. to start following the hottest players in the world wasn’t given the kind of highlights that elicit any kind of roar. The loudest noise Rahm, Scheffler and McIlroy heard all day was on the No. 8 tee, where cheers erupted in the group ahead as Rickie Fowler drained a 37-foot birdie putt.
It’s not like good scores, especially from half the field with morning tee times, weren’t being posted. First-round leader Chad Ramey, who has a world ranking of No. 225, shot 64, one shot off the course record. Taylor Pendrith, ranked No. 114 and still searching for his first Tour win, fired a 67.
Unfortunately, the anticipation of the world’s best players staging a birdie-fest in good scoring conditions never materialized.
Rory start was bad sign
Fans of the Big Three kept waiting for something good to erupt, but it was a collective meh performance until Scheffler finally found a higher gear at the end.
“Obviously it’s out there; somebody did it,” Scheffler said of low scores. “So I would not say that I’m extremely surprised. I think this is one of those places when you’re hitting the ball really well and getting the ball in position, there’s a lot of birdies to be had. But as you start to miss fairways and get out of position, it can go the opposite way very quickly.”
No household name got more sideways in the opening round than McIlroy. His feast-or-famine reputation at The Players – four top-8 finishes and five missed cuts among 12 appearances – immediately flared up in a bad way.
He played the par-four 10th hole (his first) like a 15-handicapper. His tee shot sailed right of the fairway into a brutal part of the rough, a harbinger of what was in store for the 2019 Players champion.
McIlroy then pulled his approach shot left of the green behind a mound. His chip shot landed on the green, then rolled off into the trap, followed by a blast that barely made it to the fringe. He two-putted for a double bogey.
You sort of knew the potential for a horribly bad day, where McIlroy hit only six of 14 fairways, went 0-for-3 on sand saves and needed 31 putts, was coming when he three-putted for par at the easiest hole, the par-five 16th.
“You’ve got the four par-5s which are very gettable, and you’ve got a few other holes, 4 and 12 specifically,” McIlroy said. “So you’ve got six really gettable ones, that if you’re on your game, you should make birdies on those. So there’s still plenty of opportunities out there.”
But with McIlroy playing those inviting birdie holes in just 1-under-par – compared to a combined 6-under for leaders Ramey and Collin Morikawa – it’s not a shocker that he signed for his third-worst career score on the Stadium Course in 39 rounds.
“The three-putt on 16 was probably the one that sort of stopped any momentum,” McIlroy said. “I hit a really good shot out of the pine straw there and didn’t capitalize on that, and making bogey on 1 and bogey on 3 sort of was tough to get it back from there.”
Putter, wedges abandon Rahm
The expletive that Rahm uttered after his sixth birdie putt from inside 15 feet failed to drop on the final hole was somewhat understandable.
Signing for a one-under-par 71, about the worst score he could have shot given his ball-striking, left him in a tie for 32nd place heading into Friday. He probably should have been in the top-5 with Scheffler, if only the flat stick wasn’t so off-target on makeable putts.
Fifteen minutes after his round, Rahm was still rankled by the last missed birdie putt.
“Well, it felt like a slap in the face on a day that I hit a lot of putts and just kept burning edges, to one that looked like it was going in and, you know, it’s just, it’s just what it is,” Rahm said. “It’s golf. The only thing I could say is that I hit a lot of quality putts out there.
“The only thing I will be thinking on today is a couple wedge shots, about three or four of them out there, that not only didn’t I hit them close, some of them I missed the green completely. I did get up and down, but those were situations where I should have given myself four really good birdie looks and I didn’t. So that’s where I think the difference on the round was today compared to other scores out there.”
By the time Thursday’s suspended round finished, eight of the top 11 players on the leaderboard had world rankings of 50 or higher, including five who were making their debut at The Players.
Nothing against the lower-profile guys, but the Tour’s signature event could use more star power near the top. Thankfully, Scheffler and Morikawa are lurking.
For the first time in at least the last 20 years of The Players, competitors ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in golf were paired together to start the tournament, but it was more fizzle than sizzle.
Maybe when Rahm, Scheffler and McIlroy tee it up again Friday — and possibly again Saturday with rain in the forecast – the threesome can validate why they belong on top of the world.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540