Sunday 21 January 2018

McIlroy finds old magic as Sawgrass rolls over

Rory McIlroy plays his tee-shot at the 18th during the first round of The Players Championship at Sawgrass
Rory McIlroy plays his tee-shot at the 18th during the first round of The Players Championship at Sawgrass

Kevin Garside

RORY McILROY has yet to make the cut at Sawgrass in three visits, but it will take a wisdom tooth attack of Honda Classic proportions to prevent him making it through this weekend. So much for this course not fitting his eye.

McIlroy was at his imperious best playing alongside Masters champion Adam Scott and Steve Stricker in the first round of the Players Championship, scoring a six-under 66.

With the temperatures climbing into the low 80s and no wind to speak of in the morning, Sawgrass rolled over for the early starters. Roberto Castro, in his second year on the PGA Tour and a Players debutant, smashed a 63 to equal the course record.

Castro's iron play was freakish, hitting four approaches to within two feet of the pin and six within five feet. He didn't have a putt outside 10 feet. As he left the scorer's hut, he was signing autographs with a wedge.

The going was far tougher after lunch as the putting surfaces went from soft and receptive to firm and bouncy, making the 68 posted by Padraig Harrington appear all the more miraculous.

After finishing tied last on his first competitive outing with the belly putter at Quail Hollow last week, this was an astonishing display of Harrington's strength-of-character.

He even had to recover from a gut-wrenching roller-coaster start to his round as he followed an eagle at the second with a double-bogey at the third.

Interestingly, the Dubliner has discarded his glasses. After months of experimentation with different lenses, he's settled on the perfect contacts to help him read the correct line of his putts.

Clark Kent would have been impressed with the transformation as Harrington strutted his stuff like the Major champion of old, especially on the greens.

It was 'anchors aweigh' as he holed from 19 feet with his new long putter for a splendid eagle three at two. Just as impressively, Harrington then shrugged off a double-bogey five at the third, where he pulled his tee shot into water.

A facile birdie three at four and another dropped shot after his approach fell well short of the green at five left him at even par and utterly unruffled.

His up-and-down to save par after missing the green by a mile at eight was vintage Harrington. A deftly-holed nine footer there was followed by one of 11 feet for birdie at 11. Then two more splendid putts of 16 and 12 feet at 14 and 15 respectively were perfect in terms of stroke, line and pace.

Even luck was on Harrington's side at the terrifying 17th, where his tee shot held up in the long grass within a couple of feet of the water after it was caught by an inopportune gust of wind as it crossed the lake.

"I hit plenty of fairways and holed lots of putts, which is a pretty good combination around this course," he said. "I had the belly putter adjusted since last week, so it was better."

Ryan Palmer also excelled with an afternoon 67, while Tiger Woods matched that score although a duffed chip at the last cost him a shot during an otherwise faultess round.

The two McIlroy made at 17 (where he hit a stunning tee shot to six feet for the fifth birdie in his opening eight holes) encapsulated the 24-year-old's performance as he played once again with the majesty of last autumn.

There is a poetry associated with the way McIlroy violates a golf ball. He is not the tallest, nor the biggest, but the swing is among the sweetest motions in the game and propels the ball immense distances. Around the greens he makes the ball dance. His chip at the 10th stopped dead. At the 12th, it checked impressively after landing on a down slope and rolled to five feet. To the greenside galleries this constitutes golfing magic, rabbits conjured from hats.

McIlroy's inward nine was just as impressive in terms of his ball-striking, but the putts stayed up. Fractions. He had six single putts going out. Not enough coming back. I

"I gave myself a lot of chances for birdie," McIlroy said afterwards. "Really happy with the way I played. If you keep doing that you are going to shoot some good scores."

Graeme McDowell, who won last time out at the Heritage in Hilton Head, acknowledged the victory as his first since he became a full member on the PGA Tour. It came three years after his US Open win at Pebble Beach. The moral of the story relates to the degree of difficulty involved in winning anywhere when standards are so good. A hat-trick of birdies on the back nine kept McDowell in touch at two-under.(© Independent News Service)

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