Rory McIlroy takes strategic view of Sawgrass challenges
Rory McIlroy adopted a conservative approach for the opening round of the The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass and duly earned a fair reward for his labours.
A round of 69, three-under par, could have been much better if a couple of birdie putts had not tracked just wide of the hole on his closing stretch, but the world No 1 was not complaining.
He had decided beforehand that patience was the key on a tricky course which takes the driver out of McIlroy's hand a little too often for his liking.
But instead of allowing frustration to creep in to his mentality, the newly-crowned WGC-Cadillac Match Play champion adapted to the conditions and the requirements on the opening day.
These are lessons the 26-year-old four-time Major winner has learned the hard way at Sawgrass, after three missed cuts on his first three visits, followed by a tied eighth in 2013 and sixth place last year.
"You just have to be very, very patient. Look at my card and you see I've a lot of pars there. You need a lot of patience and pick up birdies where you can," said McIlroy.
"The first time I got here I felt like it's a course where if you're playing well you should shoot 67, 68 every time but it's not really like that.
"It can jump up and bite you very quickly. You've got know that sometimes par is a good score and you move on."
The highlight of his day was an eagle three on the par-five 16th, his seventh hole.
At 523 yards, this hole offers an opportunity for birdie or better, although it features a large water hazard and a two-tiered green.
No bother to McIlroy - he made it look easy.
"It was playing downwind and I only had an eight-iron in from 205 yards.
"Par-fives are much easier when you can hit short irons in like that. It was nice to hit one in close there and take advantage of it and make three," he said.
On the previous hole, the 15th, McIlroy claimed his first birdie of the round.
He only made one blemish, a bogey on the first hole, his 10th, and he kept a steady hand on the tiller through to the famous par-3 17th, where he holed from 14 feet for a two.
McIlroy created another birdie chance on the long 18th but the ball edged narrowly past the cup.
The plan post-round was to do some light practice and rest up after a round lasting almost five hours in the heat and the bright Florida sunshine.
"Starting with last week (WGC-Match Play), it's a five-week stretch I'm on through to the Irish Open.
"I took Monday and Tuesday off. I was at home in Palm Beach which was really nice. I came here, played nine holes yesterday afternoon. I probably won't do much this afternoon.
"It's all about conserving energy because it's a long stretch of golf. I want to make sure I'm a hundred per cent focused when I go out there and play, so not much off-course activity in terms of practice.
"I'm just trying to focus on the rounds of golf I'm playing," he said.
By contrast, the world No 2 Jordan Spieth, who played alongside McIlroy with Australia's Jason Day, never sparkled and closed six shots adrift of McIlroy with a three-over-par 75.
Day, despite missing all but five fairways, pitched and putted his way to three-under par to match McIlroy's opening 69.
Pádraig Harrington had six birdies on his round, including three in a row on holes four, five, and six, which were his 13th, 14th and 15th.
They helped him finish strongly and atoned for his two-over-par front nine, leaving the Dubliner one-under on 71.
Graeme McDowell, who played in Harrington's group with Ryan Palmer, and Shane Lowry both filed one-over-par rounds of 73.
Tiger Woods' first-round was ruined by a double bogey at the last after finding the water off the tee. Woods carded a 73 despite three birdies in his last five holes, including a brilliant chip-in birdie at the signature 17th. Phil Mickelson also double-bogeyed 18 after finding the same pool of water at the last and sits alongside Woods on one-over.
Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke injured his wrist in practice before teeing off and withdrew after 11 holes. He was ten-over par at that stage and there was no point aggravating the injury.
Japan's Hideki Matsuyama set the clubhouse lead at 67 in the morning. It held up through most of the day until Canadian David Hearn and American Charley Hoffman matched his score of five under par. Tory Merritt, Ben Martin and Billy Horschel were among the chasers on 68 to stay in touch with the early leaders.
Meanwhile, Ireland's Kevin Phelan was just three shots off the leading group after round one of the AfraAsia Bank Mauritius Open being played at The Heritage GC in Domaine de Bel Ombre in Mauritius.
Phelan's 68 featured seven birdies, two bogeys, and one double-bogey, leaving him in joint 14th place.
Jeunghun Wang of Korea, Carlos Pigem (Spain), and Denmark's Thorbjorn Olesen were joint top of the leaderboard on 65 (six-under par).
Simon Thornton was the leading Irishman in the Challenge Tour's Turkish Airlines Challenge at Gloria GC, in Antalya Turkey.
Thornton's 71 left him five behind overnight leader Eduard Dubois of France whose 66 gave him a one-shot margin ahead of Swede Frederik Anderson Hed and Mads Sogaard (Denmark).
The Players Championship
Live, Sky Sports 4, 6.0pm
AfraAsia Bank Mauritius Open
Live, Sky Sports 4, 7.30am/11.00 am