PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The biggest star at The Players Championship was not Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth playing together in the morning. And it wasn’t Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in back-to-back groups in the afternoon.
It was the TPC Sawgrass all day long in another round of big numbers, curious shots and endless entertainment.
Charley Hoffman was among four players tied for the lead at 5-under 67. He was thrilled with his eight birdies, the most of anyone Thursday. What turned a great day into a very good one was that triple bogey out of nowhere right after he made the turn.
How does one make a 7 on the usually harmless first hole?
“Pardon my French,” Hoffman began, before using a familiar English word not fit for print to describe all seven of his bad shots. In fairness, the seventh shot was good. He made a 4-foot putt to keep it from being an 8.
David Hearn of Canada, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan and Kevin Na also had 67. Each made only one bogey. It was boring, which never hurts around here.
McIlroy also had a boring round by his standards – two birdies, an eagle, one bogey for a 69. It’s a rare occasion when he’ll call that a good day.
“I think that’s what this course is all about,” McIlroy said. “It’s about staying patient. There’s a lot of pars on my card, but I was able to pick off a couple of birdies and a nice eagle on 16. I’m happy with the start, for sure.”
Spieth wasn’t so fortunate. He was 40 yards away from the green at the par-5 11th and used a wedge three times to get on the green. That doesn’t explain the horrible lie he had in the grass, followed by the lie in the sand just below the lip of the bunker. He shot a 75, matching his worst score of the year.
“Just a really, really poor day,” Spieth said.
Woods hit a tee shot on a par 3 that went into the water, which is not unusual. But it wasn’t on the island-green at the 17th. It was at No. 8, with a clunker that found a creek some 40 yards short of the green. Woods didn’t even know there was water on that hole.
“I’ve never seen it,” he said after a 73.
At least one player made a 7 or worse on 10 of the holes on the Stadium Course. Brooks Koepka made a 7 on the 17th by putting two balls into the water. And then he made an 8 on the next hole by putting only one ball in the water. He played the other 16 holes in 1 under.
The Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass holds a certain mystique after more than three decades. Even in reasonable conditions – warmth, sunshine and a little wind – no one fared better than a 67.
After 12 hours of theater that Sawgrass so often provides, they return to repeat the process.
There was more energy than usual for a Thursday morning, especially with Woods and Mickelson (73) playing in the afternoon. McIlroy is No. 1 in the world and coming off a win at the Match Play Championship, while Spieth became the de facto challenger with a dominant Masters win that moved him to No. 2 in the world.
They warmed up next to each other on the range. And it was clear from the start this day would be a solid one for McIlroy, not so much for Spieth. Along for the ride was Jason Day, who isn’t exactly on the B-list of rising stars. Day, who jokingly described himself as the third wheel, had a 69 with a double bogey on the 18th.
“I’ve got to beat those guys, but I think the biggest thing is not beating myself,” Day said.
Big numbers can be found anywhere, though. Hoffman didn’t see his coming.
“Obviously, you don’t ever want to take a triple, double, quad, whatever it is,” Hoffman said. “But at least I gave myself time to get them back. It’s better than doing it on the 72nd hole, I can guarantee you that.”
The 18th hole was no picnic after a long day. Mickelson hit the wooden plank and went into the water for a double bogey. He shot 73 with five birdies. Adam Scott wasted a reasonable start by finding water for a double bogey on the 18th. Woods hit into the water and made double bogey.
Two dozen players broke 70, while 76 players in the 144-man field were at par or better.
Spieth, who also had a 75 when he missed the cut at Torrey Pines, felt something wrong with his alignment when he arrived Monday, and he still hasn’t sorted it out. He got behind quickly, and that didn’t help. Most telling of his day was No. 11.
His second shot was left of the green in a grass bunker, the ball sitting so far down in the grass that Spieth walked up to it and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” With a full, powerful swing, he advanced it some 50 feet – from a regular lie, that shot would have gone 110 yards – to just under the lip of a bunker. It was another bad lie, and he only advanced the next one 18 feet to the collar.
“It’s just one of those days where I started maybe looking into it a little too much rather than just accepting it and going forward,” he said. “Just going to have to find some answers.”