Sunday 22 October 2017

McIlroy gets that sinking feeling

Rory McIlroy in action at The Players. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy in action at The Players. Photo: Getty Images

William S Callahan

RORY McILROY'S hopes of breaking par for the first time ever at The Players were dashed on the deadly 17th at Sawgrass yesterday.

McIlroy's tee shot at golf's most intimidating par-three fell just short at the island green and into the water.

The 23-year-old instantly reloaded and fired his next into the heart of the green, 45 feet from the hole, leading to the dispiriting two-putt double-bogey which dropped McIlroy back to even par.

Ireland's World No 1 has missed the cut in two previous appearances at Sawgrass, where he must rein-in his phenomenal long game on many holes.

Yet McIlroy was coping well with the strategic challenge of Pete Dye's Stadium Course as he swept to two-under with a nice two-putt birdie at 16.

Earlier, fortune seemed to be on his side as a wayward approach to nine bounced out of the trees and back onto the fairway, leading to birdie four ... yet McIlroy's luck ran out at 17.

He finished the day tied with Luke Donald on ever par, seven off the pace set by leaders Ian Poulter of England and Martin Laird of Scotland with superlative 65s.

Padraig Harrington defied a few cobwebs to post his best start in seven years at The Players, taking advantage of a glorious, sun-dappled morning to post a first round 69.

IMPRESSIVE

Harrington hadn't played in three weeks since his impressive eighth at The Masters, followed by missing the cut at The Heritage.

The Dubliner rarely clicks back into top gear on his first week back in the arena ... but he defied any lingering ring rust with his lowest opening round since 2005.

Early-bird Harrington certainly had the best of benign conditions on a pristine course.

Yet it's also a measure of the 40-year old's exemplary ball-striking these days that he was able to dip under par at Sawgrass for the first time since 2007, the year golf's so-called 'Fifth Major' switched from March to May and on to Bermuda grass.

Given he has missed the cut four times in his last five visits, it's little wonder Harrington declared himself "happy with the 69."

Yet it was almost heartening to hear Harrington express some reservations about his performance ... he's at his most dangerous in that mood.

"After three weeks off I was just a little bit tentative. My routines just weren't good, especially on the greens," he said. "They were just a little out and certainly that's where I'll look for improvement over the next three days."

Harrington started brightly, sinking a seven-footer for his birdie at the par five second before hitting a sweet tee shot into four feet for his two at the third, an exacting par-three.

The Irishman spurned further birdie chances from around six feet at four and five before missing from five feet for his par at the sixth. He then took another bogey after pulling his tee shot way left of the green at the short eighth.

However, his putting was sharp as he holed from seven feet for birdie at nine and from 13 feet for another at 13.

The Dubliner then made an easy four at the long 16th before two-putting from 14 feet for a comfortable par on the island green at 17.

All told, it was a decent opening day.

Poulter's sublime seven-under par 65 beat his previous best at Sawgrass by two strokes. It featured nine successive one-putts from the ninth as he landed six birdies on his final 10 holes.

The Englishman (36), second behind Henrik Stenson at The Players in 2009, and Scotsman Laird (29), who had seven birdies in his phenomenal bogey-free round in the afternoon, both were a staggering nine strokes ahead of Tiger Woods.

An abject opening 74 left the former World No 1 in danger of missing the cut in consecutive PGA Tour events for the first time after failing to make the weekend at Quail Hollow last weekend.

"It certainly wasn't the most positive start," moaned Tiger, whose wedge play and chipping were shocking. "Any kind of momentum I'd build, I'd shoot myself in the foot at the very next hole."

Graeme McDowell had three three-putts and missed a couple of other short ones during an exasperating day on the greens as he too shot 74.

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