Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson delivered plenty of entertainment Thursday at the Players Championship.
The lead belonged to just about everyone else.
Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar were among six players who shared the lead at six-under-par 66 in ideal scoring conditions, creating the largest logjam ever at the TPC Sawgrass and the most players tied at the top at the Players in 40 years.
“If you’re on your game, this course suits you,” Kuchar said.
That’s been the story of the TPC Sawgrass over the years — a design that doesn’t favor one style of play. That notion was on overdrive in warm sunshine and conditions so ideal that 12 players were separated by one shot after the opening round, and 68 players in the 144-man field broke par.
Woods wasn’t among them. He shot 72 in his first time at the Players in three years. Neither was Mickelson, who had three double bogeys on the back nine and shot 79. Rickie Fowler rounded out the threesome and shot 74. They were the feature group in the afternoon that brought out thousands of sun-soaked fans.
“Toward the back nine, it started getting a little sparse,” Woods said. “I think they might have tipped back a couple and got a little sleepy.”
Or maybe they were just bored.
All the action was all around them.
Kuchar, Chesson Hadley and Patrick Cantlay each got to seven under until late bogeys. Johnson, Alex Noren and Webb Simpson each shot 66 in the morning when there was only a mild breeze, still enough to make even the best look foolish.
Johnson played like he was determined to keep the No. 1 ranking, which he could lose if he finishes 12th or worse. He started on No. 10 and went out in 31, and when he rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-five second hole, he was on his way. Johnson was more than happy with his 66. It was his best score ever on the Stadium Course, and only his fourth time in the 60s.
Rookies and veterans alike were in the group at 67. The rookie was Keith Mitchell, who didn’t even know he was in the field until Paul Casey withdrew Wednesday. Mitchell birdied his opening four holes, made seven birdies over his first 11 holes and was slowed only by a double bogey on the par-three third.
The veteran was 51-year-old Steve Stricker, who still can’t decide whether to hang his hat in the big leagues or the senior circuit. “I’m not surprised,” Stricker said. “I expect to play well.”
Also at 67 was defending champion Si Woo Kim, who didn’t seem to worry that no one has ever won back-to-back at TPC Sawgrass.
The feature group in the morning — Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas — struggled. McIlroy was the only one to break par at 71. Thomas had a 73 and Spieth appeared headed for a fourth consecutive weekend off at the Players when he shot 75, which included an eagle when he drove the green on the par-four 12th.