PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy had their best start ever Thursday in the Players Championship. It still wasn’t enough to catch Roberto Castro, who had never played the TPC Sawgrass and made a debut he won’t soon forget.
Castro hit shots into tap-in range on the famed 17th and 18th holes on his way to a 9-under-par 63 in perfect scoring conditions in the morning. He tied the course record held by Fred Couples and Greg Norman, and it gave him a three-shot lead — the largest 18-hole margin in 21 years at Sawgrass — over McIlroy and Zach Johnson.
“I hit it close a lot,” said Castro, making it sound as easy as it looked.
Woods had to work a little harder in the afternoon, when a breeze arrived and the sun began to make the green firm. Even so, he was on the cusp of his first bogey-free round in his 16 years at the Players until his 8-iron from 200 yards went just over the green and he flubbed his chip. The bogey gave him a 67, which was the first time he has broken 70 in the opening round at Sawgrass.
“It was a day that I felt I had to shoot something in the 60s,” Woods said. “Most of the guys were under par in the morning session.”
Half of the players who played early broke par, a rarity at this tournament.
Vijay Singh, playing one day after he sued the PGA Tour for its handling of his doping case, was largely ignored while playing in the group behind Woods. One fan wore felt deer antlers in the bleachers behind the first tee — Singh’s case involved taking deer antler spray — but only a dozen or so people followed the 50-year-old Fijian on the back nine and it was a quiet day.
At one point, Singh let out a hearty laugh walking off the tee with Robert Garrigus and J.J. Henry. His golf wasn’t the subject of the laughter. Singh hit into the water on the last hole and made bogey for a 74, leaving him in danger of missing the cut.
So ended a first round filled with plenty of action — a record-tying score by a player hardly anyone knows, McIlroy breaking par for the first time at Sawgrass, 17 balls in the water around the island-green 17th and 33 rounds in the 60s.
Padraig Harrington followed an eagle with a double bogey. Michael Thompson made a hole-in-one.
But it all started with Castro, a 27-year-old who felt like he couldn’t miss. His record-tying score was posted as players were on the practice range getting ready to tee off in the afternoon, making it tough to stay patient on a course that demands it. Woods was nine shots behind before he hit his first shot.
“I’ve seen that a lot, but not at this golf course,” he said.
He did well to get within four shots. Woods, Webb Simpson and Ryan Palmer at 67 had the lowest round among those who played late, and they now turn around and get the morning conditions — hopeful they’ll be the same — on Friday.
McIlroy also played in the morning, in the same group as Masters champion Adam Scott (69) and Steve Stricker (67).
The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland had never made the cut or even broken par at the Players, but McIlroy figured it out on a gorgeous morning by dialing it back off the tee and letting his iron play take over. McIlroy never came seriously close to a bogey, and he didn’t hit drive once on the front nine.
“When you hit the shots, it seems very simple,” McIlroy said. “I had a lot of good shots out there, lot of iron shots that were 12, 15 feet away from the pin and I got myself a lot of looks for birdies. I adopted maybe more of a conservative strategy off the tee this year. But once you put your ball in the fairway that means you can be more aggressive into the greens. So it sort of balances itself out.”
The Stadium Course has rarely looked so vulnerable with barely a trace of wind and some pins in bowls that allowed for good looks at birdie.