Graeme McDowell playing catch-up as Kaymer hits sizzling 63
NORTHERN stars Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy were a shade off the pace at Sawgrass yesterday, but the quality of their play suggests both may be headed for a monster weekend showdown at the Players.
The man the Ulster pair will have to catch, however, is German Martin Kaymer, who blitzed the Stadium Course for a nine-birdie 63, coming home in 29 strokes. This left him two clear of American Russell Henley.
McDowell's trademark tenacity shone through as he ground out a three-under-par 69, his first sub-70 round at TPC since 2011, when the Portrush man stood colossus-like over the rest of the field for the weather-hit first 54 holes, which stretched to Sunday lunchtime.
After a savage stroke of misfortune led to double-bogey six at 18 that day, McDowell lost his mojo in the final round, then failed to make the cut in his next two visits to the Players.
Yet, the way he recovered from back-to-back bogeys at 14 and 15, his fifth and sixth holes yesterday, and played the rest of his first round in five-under made it clear G-Mac is in the mood for business.
McIlroy's first-round 70 was almost the polar opposite to McDowell's as the Holywood prodigy clumsily dropped three shots in six holes down the stretch. Yet there was further impressive evidence that, at the grand old age of 25, McIlroy has learned how to control the throttle around Sawgrass.
With its greens playing softer and more receptive than ever as they are pampered after sustaining severe damage over the winter, it's more vulnerable than ever to his effortless power.
This helps explain how Kaymer and Henley could both rattle up nine birdies, though the American also had a double-bogey six at seven.
Or that no fewer than eight early starters – Sergio Garcia, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, Justin Rose, Gary Woodland, Scott Stallings, Brian Stuard and the flawless Lee Westwood and Jordan Spieth – could all post 67s.
McIlroy took up yesterday where he left off during last year's tie for eighth at the Players. He opened imperiously, rolling in an 11-foot putt for birdie at 10, followed by a four at the long 11th.
A loose approach to 12 led to a clumsy chip from the left greenside rough and bogey, but it looked like child's play for McIlroy as he bracketed a comfortable two-putt par on that Desert Island at 17, with effortless birdies at 16 and 18.
After bringing his birdie haul to six at the first and second, a few errors crept in. He failed to get up and down from the left rough at the par-three fourth, his 13th, and made further bogeys out of a left fairway bunker at six and trouble to the left of the eighth green.
McIlroy now has seven bogeys and no birdies in 11 visits to the 237-yards eighth, while he's three-over in that time for the par-five ninth, including yesterday's two-putt from 10 feet for par.
Yet, as he said himself: "I'm swinging it very well and my ball-striking is right there. It's just a matter of making more putts and not letting a five-under round turn into two-under. I just have to play a little tidier over the next few days and get myself into contention."
Despite a last-hole birdie at the ninth, Darren Clarke – playing with Kaymer – could only manage a 76.
Play in the Madeira Island Open was abandoned as thick fog shrouded the mountaintop course at Santo da Serra. The first round will be played today.
THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP, LIVE, SKY SPORTS 4, 6.0
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