PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Maybe this was golf’s version of whistling through a graveyard.
The game’s best giddily paraded around the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course Thursday morning with more smiles, back slaps and fist pumps than we’re accustomed to seeing around here.
The Players Championship was more Fun House than House of Horrors, even for the afternoon wave.
It played more like the second CareerBuilder Challenge of the season than the fifth major.
Somewhere, Pete Dye must have been grinding his teeth.
The famed architect watched Jason Day go record low (20 under) for 72 holes at the PGA Championship last summer on his Whistling Straits design, and watched him equal the Stadium Course Thursday record with a 63.
“Today was the most gettable I’ve ever seen it,” said Justin Rose, who shot 65. “I was surprised to see it so soft because there hasn’t been a drop of rain all week.”
There were 12 scores of 66 or better, the most in any single round since The Players Championship moved to TPC Sawgrass in 1982.
“Today was the day you had to get it,” Bill Haas said after posting a 65.
Dye’s course can be a maddening puzzle for pros to figure out, with its deceptive angles, optical illusions and hidden trouble. Dye had them scratching their heads again Thursday, but this time players were trying to figure out how their games suddenly came together here.
Shane Lowry fired the first 29 ever on the back nine of The Players at the Stadium Course.
“I had no confidence coming here,” Lowry said. “My game felt poor last week. I almost wasn’t looking forward to the week.”
Apparently, you don’t have to come to The Players with your A-game. You can find it here.
Cameron Tringale did, too, shooting 65.
“My results haven’t been very good coming into this week, to be honest,” Tringale said.
Hudson Swafford shot 66 in his first round ever at The Players. He arrived having missed three consecutive cuts.
“The greens were receptive,” Swafford said. “It was kind of shocking.”
Ernie Els shot 66. A little more than a month after he six-putted the first hole at the Masters, Els opened The Players with six consecutive one-putts. It’s the lowest round he’s posted here in 20 years.
“This course has had its way with me,” Els said. "Nice to get one up on the course, and the conditions were great.”
Rose was knocking down flagsticks. He hit all 18 greens in regulation shooting his 66 and made just one putt of more than 10 feet. He’s one of only four players to hit every green in regulation at The Players.
When the breeze stiffened in the afternoon, and the greens began drying out, the course toughened, but it never got that tough. Boo Weekley shot 66 in the afternoon. The morning wave’s scoring average was 70.06, with the afternoon’s rising to 71.97. Still, the overall first-round scoring average was 71.01, the lowest in 23 years.
“I don’t like it,” David Duval said of the set-up and scoring conditions. “I think it should have been and could have been faster.”
Duval won here in ’99 with a 3-under 285 total, the highest winning score on the Stadium Course.
While the fairways were firm and fast, the greens weren’t. Without wind to repel scoring, players were able to attack flagsticks. Scoring Thursday was all about the greens, which are scheduled to begin undergoing a major renovation two days after the conclusion of this week’s event. The greens are being switched out from Miniverde Bermuda to Tifeagle Bermuda.
“The greens are a little more receptive right now, which they're starting to turn a little brown,” Weekley said. “I hope they put a little water on them and try to get them back to life, because if they don't do that, then there ain't no telling what it's going to be on the weekend.”
Players haven’t seen scoring quite this low in a long time, but they’ve seen how Dye’s design can turn dark and mean almost overnight. They’re expecting the meanness back by the weekend.
“By tomorrow, they will be firm and Saturday and Sunday they will be concrete,” Swafford said.