PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | By the time golf’s current triumvirate – world No. 1 Jon Rahm, No. 2 Scottie Scheffler and No. 3 Rory McIlroy – made it to the par-5 ninth hole at the TPC Stadium Course early Thursday afternoon completing their first rounds in the Players Championship, their individual stories were a period, an exclamation point and a #%!*%^ from being complete.
Grouped together for the first two days of the PGA Tour’s proudest presentation, they were deserving of horns and fanfare, but mostly what they got was muted enthusiasm from their gradually swelling gallery that got glimpses of how good they are but rarely the sizzle that typically separates them.
Maybe it was the weather, cool and overcast, the sky the same shade of gray as McIlroy’s trousers. Or maybe it was the fact that the fireworks were being lit instead by Collin Morikawa and Chad Ramey, a player who probably needs to show his credential to enter the locker room, and others.
That’s the way golf tournaments go, or at least the way they start. This one in particular tends to be like guessing lottery numbers, even in a threesome that has held the No. 1 ranking since July 2021 and has traded the spot three times in the previous five weeks, with Rahm currently holding the hot potato.
Let’s start with Rahm, the Spaniard who is on the cusp of a mammoth season, already having won three times and thrown out the residue of five water balls in less than 36 hours last week at Bay Hill that temporarily doused the flames that seem to come with every round he plays.
For a guy whose every swing has head-turning potential, Rahm struggled to make much happen on Thursday. Starting on the back nine, he parred his first six holes, made birdies at the 16th and 18th holes where the highlights tend to happen, then didn’t make another birdie, riding a monorail of pars until a bogey at the long par-3 eighth, his 17th.
Then Rahm set about doing Rahm things, hitting a 303-yard tee shot followed by a 310-yard second shot into the ninth green, leaving him 42 tilting feet for eagle and two putts for a birdie to make lunch taste a little better.
He ran his first putt nearly 9 feet past the hole, not what he intended. From there, imagine the cup as a clock face. Rahm’s putt caught the cup at around 7 o’clock and spun out at around 4 o’clock, prompting him to loudly blurt his frustration in one use-your-imagination #%!*%^ word.
“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, it’s just what it is. It’s golf,” Rahm said after signing for a 71.
As for Scheffler, he quietly shot a 4-under-par 68 with a closing birdie that felt like an exclamation point. Among the many things Scheffler does is look remarkably comfortable in his own skin. McIlroy bounces (at least on good days), and Rahm seems to be walking downwind at times while Scheffler strolls along like a guy at the mall.
He started with nine pars, then shot 32 with a bogey on his second nine holes, making it look at times as simple as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Perhaps that’s Scheffler’s gift: illusion.
At no point did he think about the fact that he was part of a first-day grouping of players whom everyone else is chasing.
“It was just enjoyable being out there with those guys,” Scheffler said. “We had a nice crowd out there, so that was a lot of fun. When good things happened, it was nice to hear a couple of roars.”
There were no roars for Rory, but first-round 76s aren’t known for the noise they create, except for the possible roaring in the ears of the player making a mess of his intentions.
Starting at 7:56 a.m. in sweater weather, McIlroy effectively spilled coffee on his clean clothes immediately. The par-4 10th hole is the equivalent of green beans on the Stadium Course buffet, but it has tormented McIlroy in recent years.
As he did in 2021, McIlroy started the Players Championship with a double bogey at the 10th, this one a sloppy 6 that included pitching his third shot from behind the green into a bunker on the other side of the putting surface. Last year, McIlroy started with a bogey at the 10th and, considering all he has done on the tour’s behalf recently, perhaps he should request a Thursday first tee start here next year.
McIlroy has some first-hole stories. After waiting a lifetime for an Open Championship at Royal Portrush in his native Northern Ireland, McIlroy hit his opening tee shot out of bounds and made an 8, leading to a disheartening missed cut in 2019.
He started the Tour Championship last August with a triple bogey, but this story had a happy ending with McIlroy chasing down Scheffler to win his third FedEx Cup.
By the time McIlroy closed out his Thursday 76 with a choppy bogey at the ninth, he was eight shots behind Scheffler, 12 behind Ramey and sounding like a man who has lost his best friend.
At the Genesis Invitational last month, McIlroy pulled his favorite TaylorMade driver out of his bag, which is a bit like asking Dali to change paint brushes. McIlroy feared his driver’s face was becoming too hot because he was wearing out the sweet spot, and he didn’t want to risk failing an equipment test.
For all the miracles of modern technology, McIlroy and his team haven’t found a suitable replacement, which helped explain the spate of tee shots bleeding to the right Thursday into the dense rough.
“This one is as close as it’s been,” McIlroy said. “There’s obviously a part of it that’s the user, as well. It’s quite a lot of user error in there.”
That pretty well summed it up.
Top: Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy walk off the 18th tee during the first round of the Players Championship. Photo: Richard Heathcote, Getty Images
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