PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was just after 11 a.m. on another sun-splashed Florida morning when an older gentleman strode outside the ropes to the left of TPC Sawgrass’ second fairway, turned to his female companion and inquired, “What time does the cheater tee off?”
It would have qualified as the most damning question surrounding the current state of the game if not for the one she offered in response.
Their accusations aside, nobody around here is accusing anyone of failing to play by the rules – either inside or outside the ropes – but these have been a wild last few months when it comes to hot-button issues around the game.
From the legitimacy and legality of deer antler spray to an exoneration based on a technicality to a quixotic lawsuit filed in a fuss, from a major rules decision to a convening committee to a full-blown controversy, golf has seemingly become about everything other than birdies and bogeys.
Or at least it had – until Thursday happened and everything old was new once again.
During the opening round of The Players Championship, there was no talk of spray from any animal, no lawsuits filed, no major rules decisions and – surprise, surprise – no full-blown controversies. Instead, there were legions of birdies and not quite as many bogeys, the result of a day that looked refreshingly like business as usual.
OK, so maybe “business as usual” doesn’t necessarily describe a little-known 27-year-old Georgia Tech graduate named Roberto Castro firing the third-ever 9-under 63 in tournament history, tying Hall of Fame members Greg Norman and Fred Couples in an unexpected yet brilliant display of golf.
Not that he has this course figured out after one spin around the track.
“I don't think anyone's figured out what the secret is to this place,” he said after a round that included an eagle and seven birdies. “Davis [Love III] won 21 years after winning the first time, so I'm sure there were plenty of water balls in between those two wins.”
Other than Castro’s surprise visit to the top of the leaderboard, though, this was a day that appeared “as scripted” as they say in the television biz.
Not far behind the leader were Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, the world’s top two players, finally giving performances on this course worthy of their lofty status. McIlroy posted a bogey-free 6-under 66, leaving little doubt as to whether he will end his missed cut streak here at three. Meanwhile, Woods was one stroke further back, posting birdie on each of the four par-5 holes, an often overlooked secret ingredient to his success.
It’s still early, sure, but the start at least put Woods in contention to be in contention, so to speak, searching for his first serious title run since winning this event a dozen years ago.
“This is a tricky golf course,” Woods explained. “It doesn't take much to make a bogey around here. I think that's kind of what [course designer] Pete [Dye] had intended, and I'm sure that most of the guys throughout their careers really haven't had too many other days that are spotless on their cards.”
Others signs of regularity reigned, too. It was a leaderboard that boasted Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson – four of the world’s top 30 players and four solid ball-strikers whose scores are hardly a shock.
But it didn’t stop there.
Phil Mickelson posted a birdie on the 13th hole … then followed by fading his tee shot on 14 into an awaiting pond en route to a double-bogey. Same old story.
Padraig Harrington opened par-eagle-double-birdie-bogey on his way to a 68 … as the noted tinkerer went with a belly putter and no glasses this time. Sounds about right.
Jason Dufner smacked a 9-iron into the devilish par-4 closing hole and found the bottom of the cup for eagle … and almost, sort of, kind of cracked a smile. Nothing new there.
Even Vijay Singh – he of the deer antler spray admission and ensuing exoneration and inexplicable lawsuit – got through the day in relative peace, save for a few fans who made their stances known about his tribulations from outside the ropes.
It was even peaceful for him after the round, when just as following every other round he’s played this year, he declined to speak with any media after a 2-over 74.
If that’s not business as usual, nothing is.
All of which should be considered comforting news amidst the recent tumultuous nature of the game. For one day, at least, golf was about birdies and bogeys again.