PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Conditions were so tame at The Players Championship that being anywhere around par meant being nowhere near the lead.
Just ask Tiger Woods. Or Phil Mickelson. Or Ernie Els.
J.B. Holmes and Robert Allenby each shot 66 in the opening round Thursday, leading an all-out assault on the Stadium Course. More than half the field broke par, 34 players were within three shots of the lead and the average score (71.1) for the first round was the lowest in 17 years.
“You see a lot of good scores, but I guarantee you the leader at the end of the week is not going to be 24 under,” said Bill Haas, one of 10 players at 4-under 68. “It’s not going to happen.”
That notion gives just about everyone hope heading into Friday’s second round.
“I only made three birdies,” said Woods, who shot 70 after missing the cut last week at Quail Hollow. “I had myself a few chances in there to make some putts, make some birdies, and didn’t really do it.”
Masters champion Mickelson finished with the same score and felt about the same way.
“Two under is not what I wanted,” Mickelson said. “But there is a round in the mid 60s. If I can shoot that tomorrow, I’ll get right back in it.”
Holmes played bogey-free for his 66. The only time he came close to a bogey was at No. 10, when he hit over the green and did well to chip to 15 feet before making the par putt.
“It was a fun day, one of those rounds where everything was going pretty good,” Holmes said. “It’s kind of one of those rounds where it’s not easy, but it felt pretty easy.”
Allenby played in the afternoon, when the breeze kicked up, and only had one lapse with a three-putt on the par-3 eighth.
“Greens were a bit slow out there, definitely quite soft after the rain that we’ve had the last couple of days,” Allenby said. “It definitely made it very accessible, some of those flags. I’m happy with the start, just happy to be amongst it.”
It was a large group.
Francesco Molinari of Italy had a chance to join the leaders until he chopped up the par-5 ninth hole for a bogey and finished at 68. Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III were another stroke back at 69. Els was 2 over, one shot behind a group that included Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy.
With scrutiny higher than ever after the worst tournament of his career, Woods settled down after a shaky start and eased speculation that he could miss consecutive cuts for the first time in his career.
A week ago, he had his second-highest round (79) and the worst 36-hole score (153) of his career to miss the cut by eight shots. Then came practice rounds that didn’t look much better.
“I’ve felt like I’ve done some good work this week, even though reports are I was hitting all over the lot,” Woods said. “But I was working on a few things. I was very comfortable with what I was working toward, and I was very excited about what was happening. It was just a matter of doing it in competition. And I did it today.”
A few pars saved the day – one after a hooked tee shot into the trees, another when he fanned a shot to the right into the bunker on No. 4, then made an 8-foot par putt after hitting another bunker.
Nothing looked worse than a 3-wood he popped up on No. 7, barely reaching the fairway and having to hit a 5-wood for his second shot on a par 4. He got up-and-down for par, and two holes later, gave a light but meaningful fist pump when he hit 5-wood to a tucked green on the par-5 ninth to 18 feet for a two-putt birdie.
His round could have been considerably better had he not missed so many birdie chances – four putts inside 12 feet. Even so, Woods sounded much more optimistic after playing only his seventh round of competition since Nov. 15.
“It takes time to get into the rhythm of competing, and it takes tournaments,” he said. “And I haven’t had a lot of tournaments under my belt.”