Roberto Castro matched the course record with a nine-under 63 on Thursday at The Players Championship and holds a three-shot lead over major champions Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson.
Tiger Woods had never broken 70 in a first round at TPC Sawgrass, but it was a different story on this day. He rode the momentum of four consecutive birdies from Nos. 9 to 13 en route to a five-under 67.
Below is a list of the top competitors through the first 18 holes in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
|1||Roberto Castro ||63||-9|
|T2||Rory McIlroy ||66||-6|
|T2||Zach Johnson ||66||-6|
|T4||Tiger Woods ||67||-5|
|T4||Steve Stricker ||67||-5|
|T4||Hunter Mahan ||67||-5
|T4||Casey Wittenberg ||67||-5|
|T4||Ryan Palmer ||67||-5
|T10||Henrik Stenson ||68||-4
|T10||Padraig Harrington ||68||-4|
Castro is the 267th-ranked player in the world, but the 27-year-old Texas native outclassed an elite field at Sawgrass, taking advantage of benign scoring conditions to match the record for biggest first-round lead in Players history.
Last week's heavy rain dampened the course just enough, and as NBC's Johnny Miller noted during the telecast, the rough is being maintained at two-and-a-half inches for the whole week.
For at least the first round, that allowed players, especially in the morning wave, to willfully fire at flags.
Starting on the back nine, Castro notched birdies at Nos. 11 and 14 before birdieing the final three holes as he made the turn. That included this beauty at the daunting island green of the par-three No. 17, as Castro stiffed it within gimme range:
An eagle at the par-five second hole kept the positive energy going, and two more birdies on the way in completed the phenomenal round.
Below is a look at some of the other exciting developments entering cut day at the PGA Tour's most important non-major tournament.
World No. 2 McIlroy had never broken par in three previous missed cuts in this event, but the ball-striking prowess he displayed last week carried over. Thankfully, his poor putting did not.
McIlroy typically enjoys Pete Dye courses, and the bigger the stage the better the results have been, as ESPN's Justin Ray points out:
Rory McIlroy: now 39-under in his last 9 rounds on Pete Dye-designed courses (Kiawah Island, Crooked Stick). Won last 2 starts.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) May 9, 2013
Sports Illustrated contributor Stephanie Wei logged McIlroy's comments after the round, which included a change in strategy off the tee, as he's opted not to utilize his power as much on the shorter TPC Sawgrass course:
"I've adopted a more conservative strategy off the tee this year." Rory McIlroy, who didn't hit any drivers on the front nine.— Stephanie Wei (@StephanieWei) May 9, 2013
With birdies on five of his first eight holes, it looked like McIlroy might be the one to threaten the course record. However, he cooled off with eight pars and a lone birdie on the front nine after the turn.
Should he continue hitting greens at this rate (83.33 percent), McIlroy could easily find himself holding the trophy on Sunday.
Woods off to Unprecedentedly Hot Start
It was by far the best first round Woods has ever had at The Players Championship, but it could have been even better, as the PGA Tour's official Twitter page points out:
Tiger Woods finishes one decent chip away from his first bogey-free round at @tpcsawgrass. Instead, he'll sign for a 67 (-5), tied 4th.— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 9, 2013
The approach Woods hit from the middle of the fairway was ever so slightly off and leaked just off the right side of the surface. Otherwise, it was a peerless display from the top-ranked player in the world, and he capped off his aforementioned birdie binge with a fourth in a row on the par-four 12th:
With only one win in 15 previous attempts here, it is not traditionally a course that fits Woods' eye. Clearly his comfort level has increased this time around.
The fact that Woods' putting is still in top form is extremely encouraging after struggling somewhat at The Masters in that department. Woods needed just 24 putts in Round 1 at The Players, and if he rolls the rock like that, it's nearly impossible to beat him.
Strong American Presence in Contention
Reigning U.S. Open champion Simpson had never broken 70 in 15 previous rounds at TPC Sawgrass, but he was unfazed by the relatively poor track record in firing a five-under 67 on Thursday.
It's interesting that Simpson has never performed well here, because he told Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman that he loves Dye's designs:
After breaking 70 for first time in Players career, Webb Simpson tells me he loves Pete Dye courses. He grew up on 1 in Wilmington— Kelly Tilghman (@KellyTilghmanGC) May 9, 2013
Check out this wonderful splash on a difficult long bunker shot at the par-five 16th hole, which wound up being Simpson's final birdie of the day:
Sporting an even worse history with a slew of missed cuts, Ryan Palmer rattled off five consecutive birdies after a disappointing bogey at the par-five 11th (his second of the day) to match a plethora of contenders at five under.
Elite ball-striker Hunter Mahan sits on that minus-five number, as does Steve Stricker, who continues to play well despite a significantly limited schedule in the twilight of his PGA Tour career.
The best among the Americans outside of Castro, though, is Zach Johnson. His lack of distance and reliance on precision actually works to his benefit at a venue like this, and it was evident in his round of 66.
Shots of the Day
Michael Thompson's round of 69 was defined by this ace at No. 8:
Jason Dufner struggled down the stretch en route to a one-under 71, but this approach to the closing hole—which played as the most difficult on Thursday—was superb, and netted him an eagle: