For all the hype over Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth playing together, and the constant curiosity over Tiger Woods, one element at the Players Championship didn't change Thursday. The star was the golf course.
Charley Hoffman had eight birdies in a round that showed the TPC Sawgrass can strike at any time. A triple bogey on his 10th hole turned a great day into a very good one. His five-under-par 67 gave him a share of the lead with Hideki Matsuyama, David Hearn and Kevin Na.
McIlroy lived up to his end of the bargain in the feature group with a 69. So did Jason Day, the third member of the power trio. Spieth went the other direction, racking up five bogeys for a 75 that matched his highest score of the year and left him in danger of missing the cut.
“Just a really, really poor day,” Spieth said.
Woods didn't feel much better about his round, which featured a tee shot struck so poorly that it went into the water on a par-three -- not on the island green at No. 17, but in a creek some 40 yards short of the green at No. 8.
“I didn't know it was there until now,” Woods said.
He also put his tee shot into the water on No. 18 for a closing double bogey and a 73 that he felt should have been better.
“Probably the highest score I could have shot today,” Woods said.
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.
This is a rare course where McIlroy can make 14 pars and call it 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.”
There was more energy than usual for a Thursday morning, especially with Woods and Phil 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 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 would not have imagined his coming on the opening hole. A bad drive to the right. A bad punch shot that didn't reach the fairway. A shot from right of the green that didn't reach the putting surface. A shot over the green to the other side. It adds quickly.
“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.
Martin Kaymer, trying to become the first back-to-back winner at the TPC Sawgrass, opened with a 69.
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. After failing to save par from short of the green on No. 10 to start his round, he had to hit three wedges around the green and finally got up-and-down for bogey on the par-five 11th.
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.
He turned birdie into bogey on the 16th with an approach just through the green and into thick rough, where he had to stand on the planks framing the water. The chip was soft and didn't reach the green, and he took three shots from there.
“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.”
It could have been worse.
Gary Woodland, who lost in the final at the Match Play Championship on Sunday, opened with a 79. So did Brooks Koepka, who hit two balls into the water on the island green on No. 17 and then chopped up the 18th to end his back nine with consecutive quadruple bogeys. He was 1 under on the other 16 holes.