PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Rory McIlroy was in fighter pilot stride.
Clad in black, marching confidently with that familiar little bounce in his step, McIlroy was on the leaderboard early Thursday at The Players Championship. The world No. 1 had it going, rolling in an eagle putt at No. 16, his seventh hole of the day.
Jordan Spieth’s name was nowhere to be found as he stomped around his ball behind that same 16th green. You didn’t need to see his scorecard to know the world No. 2 didn’t have it going. Muttering, with his head down, Spieth couldn’t hide his frustration.
“I can’t get more screwed today,” Spieth spit through clenched teeth while looking at his ball at the bottom of a gnarly lie in the Bermuda grass a couple feet from the edge of the lake. Spieth had to balance precariously on a wooden plank bordering the water to chip. While he managed to keep from falling in, he fluffed his chip short. He made bogey to fall five shots behind McIlroy through seven holes.
McIlroy dismissed the suggestion Spieth was emerging as his chief rival in a news conference on the eve of this championship. Spieth did nothing to change McIlroy’s mind on Thursday.
Yes, it was just one day, just one bad day for Spieth.
So with McIlroy pulling up alongside Spieth after making the turn, you couldn’t help wondering what they were chatting about.
Was the 26-year-old McIlroy offering up words of encouragement to the 21-year-old?
Some big brotherly advice, perhaps?
Well, sort of.
“It’s funny, we were talking about hairstyles,” McIlroy said. “Or something like that.”
When McIlroy was 21, he let his curly black locks flow wildly from under his golf cap. Spieth’s hair is already receding, and the frustrations he endured Thursday might have quickened the process. You can only imagine where this conversation about hair turned.
“I sort of said to him, you have a green jacket, your hair can be whatever you want it to be,” McIlroy said.
With these two young stars riding winning momentum, there was excitement over the prospect we might see some first-round fireworks. McIlroy is coming off a victory at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship last week, Spieth off his Masters victory last month. There were some good moments in the grouping Thursday at TPC Sawgrass, but they all belonged to McIlroy and the third player in the trio, Jason Day.
McIlroy conjured a roar at 16 hitting his approach to 7 feet and making that eagle.
Day punctuated his finish with back-to-back birdies.
Both McIlroy and Day shot 3-under-par 69s to get in the early hunt.
Spieth was wayward early and felt lucky to sign for a 75. His early misses ended up in bad spots, at the bottom of gnarly lies or in the face of bunker walls.
“It was unbelievable, some of the breaks today,” Spieth said.
Spieth’s marvelous short game couldn’t save him. After missing the green left at his second hole, Spieth found himself deep in Bermuda, on the side of a mound, with a downhill lie. He swiped his pitch there into the face of a greenside bunker and made bogey.
Spieth missed nine greens and managed to get up and down to save pars just four times.
A year ago, Spieth didn’t make a single bogey taking a share of the lead into the final round at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. He started bogey-bogey on Thursday. He made five bogeys on the day. He ended up tying for fourth in his first Players Championship last year. Nobody’s ever won this championship shooting 75 or worse in the first round. Spieth has some work to do to avoid missing the cut.
“Just a really, really poor day,” Spieth said. “I've got to find something to work on. Sometimes when you're hitting it really well, you just get tough breaks and you have a bad day. This wasn't one of those. I actually really need to find something on the range. Just hasn't been good ball striking this week.”
Spieth said there’s something wrong with his alignment, and he’s struggling to fix it.
“I wasn't hitting it well on the range, and I figured out I was 20 yards lined up too far right with my lower body,” Spieth said. “And then I was too far left with my shoulders . . . I'm feeling like I'm dead open hitting the golf ball and it's tough.”
McIlroy missed the cut the first three times he played The Players Championship, but he’s figuring out how to play the course. He tied for eighth two years ago, tied for sixth last year. He’s playing more conservatively, hitting few drivers. His round might have been even better, but he got a bad break at the second hole, his 11th of the day. He tried to reach that par 5 in two but his second shot hit a sprinkler head at the edge of the green and ricocheted wildly over the gallery ropes. He still made par.
“I’ve learned now what a good score is around this golf course,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy has been thriving on the back nine of architect Pete Dye’s design. He is now 24 under par on the back nine over his last six rounds at the Stadium Course. He’s 10 over on the front nine.
“There are a lot of chances on that back nine,” McIlroy said. “I just feel comfortable on it, feel comfortable on the closing stretch.”
Day thrived as the “third wheel” in the grouping.
“Everyone was like, 'Who is that guy, Andres Romero?’” Day said.
Day had to hole a 25-foot birdie to make double bogey at the 18th before making the turn. His putter was hot. He rolled in a 40-foot birdie right after making the double. He also holed a 40-foot birdie at the 14th.
“It turned an average round into a great round,” Day said.
Spieth will be looking to turn things around Friday while McIlroy will be looking to keep his fighter-pilot confidence going.