The 2013 Players Championship features many big names hovering near the top of the leaderboard, but a relative unknown in Roberto Castro leads the way at nine-under.
Castro's scintillating 63 matched the course record at TPC Sawgrass, but this is uncharted territory for the 27-year-old, who has never won a PGA Tour event. The tournament's official Twitter page nicely summed up the key storylines moving forward for the rest of the tournament:
Check out the elite titans near the top, including Rory McIlroy (-6) and Tiger Woods (-5):
|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|
Could this be the first time in tournament play that the two top-ranked players in the world in Woods and McIlroy respectively truly go head-to-head?
I'm completely on par in mental wavelengths with Golf Channel's Ryan Lavner on this one:
It's not too early to think about a Tiger-Rory duel at TPC Sawgrass, right?— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) May 9, 2013
Castro seems destined to collapse, and no other players on the leaderboard can match the firepower of either of the Nike duo—and both seem to be bringing their A-game thus far.
Beginning with the two-time major champion young gun in McIlroy, he began on the back side and carded a five-under 31. He cooled off on the inward nine, but still made zero bogeys—cutting down on silly mistakes and big numbers that have plagued him recently.
ESPN's Justin Ray outlines how stark of a contrast Thursday was to the Northern Irishman's previous Players appearances:
Rory McIlroy's 1st 6 career rounds at TPC: +12, 61.1% GIR, 23 bogeys/worse. Today: bogey-free 66, hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) May 9, 2013
If McIlroy continues striping it like this, there is no telling what he's capable of. Notching his maiden win in an up-and-down 2013 campaign certainly seems feasible.
Other than a dropped shot at the closing 18th hole thanks to a difficult chip from just off the putting surface, Woods played an exceptional round in firing a 67. What has defined Woods' dominance in the past is his uncanny ability to capitalize on par-fives, and he birdied all four on Thursday.
Among those included this wonderful play at No. 9 as he got set to make the turn:
Shane Bacon of Yahoo! brings up a magnificent point with regard to Woods' harshest critics. Expectations are uncommonly high for the living legend, but Woods finishing in a tie for fourth at The Masters, as Bacon notes, shouldn't be the measuring stick for where his game is:
Critics might focus on Tiger not winning the Masters as a setback, but him playing well at Sawgrass is enormous in evaluating his game.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) May 9, 2013
Plus, as the course continues to dry out from the rain that hit Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. last week, it's highly likely that the very best in this stacked field will rise to the top.
Though Castro's round was no doubt spectacular, he is the 267th-ranked golfer, and there are far more experienced, superior contenders giving chase. He was simply out of his mind, as Kelly Tilghman of Golf Channel highlighted:
Roberto Castro ties course record 63 in opening round of his 1st Players Championship. His longest putt made was less than 10'— Kelly Tilghman (@KellyTilghmanGC) May 9, 2013
Eventually, the burned greens and wind whipping from the ocean in northeast Florida will make Castro's stroll around Sawgrass far more unpleasant.
A McIlroy-Woods matchup is a big potential development, but they aren't the only ones making waves.
2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson has yet to register a top 10 in 2013, but took advantage of a shorter course and finally was on his game enough to capitalize, shooting a six-under 66 to match McIlroy.
Many other prominent Americans sit at minus-five, including reigning U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, who broke 70 for the first time in his career at The Players.
Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker—who played with McIlroy and recent Masters winner Adam Scott (-3)—also shot 67 in Round 1. Mahan and Stricker are two of the best U.S. players not to have won major championships.
Who will be the leader entering the weekend?
2009 Players champion Henrik Stenson has shown flashes of brilliance, but has never quite realized his full potential. Should he triumph again, the strong Swede would break the trend of different victors in the past 19 years.
Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington and another past Players winner, Sergio Garcia, are also at minus-four.
Thus, the stage is indeed set for some dramatics over the last three days, because approximately half of these marvelous golfers figure to be involved down the stretch on Sunday.