Jim Furyk plays from a fairway bunker on the 4th hole during the first round of The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass - Stadium Course. (USA TODAY Sports: Geoff Burke)
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Russell Henley scorched the back nine with a sizzling birdie blitz to seize an early two-shot lead in Thursday’s opening round of the Players Championship as several big names lined up in hot pursuit.
On an ideal day for low scoring at the TPC Sawgrass where the par-72 Stadium Course has been softened by recent rain, American Henley raced home in six-under-par 30 to complete a seven-under-par 65.
“I got off to a good start and I felt really comfortable on the greens today,” Henley told reporters after mixing nine birdies with a double-bogey at the par-four seventh.
“As long as I keep feeling comfortable with the putter, I think I can putt well on these greens. Hopefully, I can do that for the next three days.”
The 25-year-old piled up six birdies after the turn to set the early pace in the PGA Tour’s flagship event which is widely regarded as the unofficial fifth major, but some of golf’s biggest names were close behind in his rear-view mirror.
U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, England’s former world number one Lee Westwood and 2008 Players champion Sergio Garcia of Spain were among a large group on 67 while four-times major winner Ernie Els of South Africa carded a 68.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy got to five under after 11 holes on a hot and sunny day at the TPC Sawgrass but then struggled coming home on the way to an opening 70.
Henley, who clinched his second PGA Tour title at the Honda Classic in March, conceded he had no idea he had dipped as low as seven under par until he reached the final hole.
“I didn’t really notice,” the Georgia native smiled. “I knew I was playing well … but it was one of those back nines where you kind of get to 18 and I just realised that I had a putt for seven under. So that was pretty cool.”
Westwood, who ended a title drought of almost two years with a runaway victory at the European Tour’s Malaysian Open last month, took advantage of ideal morning conditions after teeing off in the first group of the day.
“The play was fast, the golf course was perfect, the breeze, there was none. It was really nice to be out there this morning,” the 41-year-old said after recording five birdies in a bogey-free display.
“I played really well. I got off to a nice start … then got a bit of momentum. I hit it good all day, hit it in the fairway a lot, missed two fairways, just in the semi rough. Hit a lot of good iron shots.”
British Open champion Phil Mickelson struggled to an opening 75 while Australian world number two Adam Scott, who could take over the top spot from the absent Tiger Woods after this week’s event, was among the day’s late starters.
Martin Kaymer tied the course record with a nine-under-par 63 to take a stroke lead over Henley after the first round. Kaymer set his pace by breaking the nine-hole record shooting a seven-under-par 29 on the front nine.