While COVID-19 has not fully loosened its grip on the sports world, golf is faring far better in March 2021 than it was in March 2020, and The Players Championship, the first big golf event this year, feels like a beacon of hope for the PGA Tour slate this year. The 154-player field highlights 48 of the top 50 players in the world.
The first round got underway Thursday at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, with featured groups including Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay and Viktor Hovland; Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson and Sergio Garcia; Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Patrick Reed; and Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Collin Morikawa.
Sawgrass is a course that rewards elite ball-striking, which Spain's Sergio Garcia has in spades. So it's no wonder Garcia, who leads by two shots after a seven-under 65, said on the broadcast at the end of Thursday's action that Sawgrass is one of his top two favorite courses in the world to play. (The other? Valderrama in Spain, of course.)
Brian Harman is second on the leaderboard at five under. Matthew Fitzpatrick, Corey Conners and Shane Lowry are all tied at four under.
But the day wasn't as kind to the rest of the field. The 17th hole has been a thorn in many Tour players' sides over the years, and Thursday was no different.
As the first round drew to a close, 35 balls had landed in the water surrounding hole No. 17, the second-most single-day total ever at the Players. (The most was 50, back in the first round in 2007.) Poor Byeong Hun An had three water balls himself on his way to an 11, just one behind Bob Tway's record 12 on the hole in 2005.
The carnage was halted temporarily as play was suspended because of darkness at 6:32 p.m. ET. But No. 17 will surely claim more victims by the time the sun sets Friday. Players who did not finish their rounds will resume at 7:30 a.m.
Let's take a look at what's in store at Sawgrass for Friday, when the second round of competition begins at 6:45 a.m. Follow along on TV on Golf Channel or streaming on PGA Tour Live and Twitter.
Players Championship Round 2: Tee Times, Pairings and Predictions
6:45 a.m. Peter Malnati, Emiliano Grillo, Abraham Ancer
6:56 a.m. Anirban Lahiri, Kyoung-Hoon Lee, Robby Shelton
7:07 a.m. Branden Grace, Sung Kang, Jimmy Walker
7:18 a.m. Hudson Swafford, Brandt Snedeker, Scott Piercy
7:29 a.m. Jim Herman, Ryan Armour, Mackenzie Hughes
7:40 a.m. Nate Lashley, Ryan Palmer, Zach Johnson
7:51 a.m. Robert Streb, Marc Leishman, Steve Stricker
8:02 a.m. Chez Reavie, Bubba Watson, Pat Perez
8:13 a.m. Patton Kizzire, Jason Dufner, Kramer Hickok
8:24 a.m. James Hahn, Tommy Fleetwood, Harold Varner III
8:35 a.m. Adam Hadwin, Patrick Rodgers, Mark Hubbard
8:46 a.m. Ryan Moore, Sepp Straka, Scott Harrington
8:57 a.m. Jhonattan Vegas, Talor Gooch, Tom Lewis
12:05 p.m. Kyle Stanley, Lucas Glover, Tyler McCumber
12:16 p.m. Russell Henley, Tom Hoge, Scottie Scheffler
12:27 p.m. C.T. Pan, Graeme McDowell, Matt Kuchar
12:38 p.m. Gary Woodland, Billy Horschel, Ian Poulter
12:49 p.m. Viktor Hovland, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas
1 p.m. Sergio Garcia, Webb Simpson, Rory McIlroy
1:11 p.m. Si Woo Kim, Kristoffer Ventura, Hideki Matsuyama
1:22 p.m. Tyrrell Hatton, Paul Casey, Xander Schauffele
1:33 p.m. Lanto Griffin, Corey Conners, Rickie Fowler
1:44 p.m. Brendon Todd, Adam Long, Andrew Putnam
1:55 p.m. Charl Schwartzel, Doc Redman, Harry Higgs
2:06 p.m. Sam Burns, Wyndham Clark, Victor Perez
2:17 p.m. Scott Stallings, Adam Schenk
6:45 a.m. Cameron Tringale, Denny McCarthy, Matthew NeSmith
6:56 a.m. Brian Harman, Cameron Percy, Bernd Wiesberger
7:07 a.m. Martin Laird, Tyler Duncan, Joaquin Niemann
7:18 a.m. Richy Werenski, Aaron Wise, Kevin Streelman
7:29 a.m. Patrick Reed, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth
7:40 a.m. Bryson DeChambeau, Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson
7:51 a.m. Daniel Berger, Adam Scott, Shane Lowry
8:02 a.m. Andrew Landry, Cameron Champ, Brendan Steele
8:13 a.m. Jason Kokrak, Francesco Molinari, Jason Day
8:24 a.m. Charley Hoffman, Rory Sabbatini, Cameron Davis
8:35 a.m. Matt Jones, Maverick McNealy, Will Zalatoris
8:46 a.m. Chris Kirk, Luke List, Bo Hoag
8:57 a.m. Brian Stuard, Danny Lee, Beau Hossler
12:05 p.m. Alex Noren, Xinjun Zhang, Doug Ghim
12:16 p.m. Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood, Robert MacIntyre
12:27 p.m. Phil Mickelson, Charles Howell III, Tony Finau
12:38 p.m. Sungjae Im, Kevin Kisner, Henrik Stenson
12:49 p.m. Keith Mitchell, Troy Merritt, Brice Garnett
1 p.m. Brian Gay, Michael Thompson, Sebastián Muñoz
1:11 p.m. Cameron Smith, Dylan Frittelli, Keegan Bradley
1:22 p.m. Kevin Na, Carlos Ortiz, Matthew Fitzpatrick
1:33 p.m. Max Homa, J.T. Poston, Russell Knox
1:44 p.m. Stewart Cink, Nick Taylor, Austin Cook
1:55 p.m. Byeong Hun An, Henrik Norlander, Christiaan Bezuidenhout
2:06 p.m. Vaughn Taylor, Jerry Kelly, Joel Dahmen
2:17 p.m. Scott Brown, Sam Ryder
The question on everyone's minds after Round 1 is if Garcia is gearing up for another Players Championship win; he last won in 2008. There's no question that this course is tailored especially well to Garcia's skills with iron and wedge play.
Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy, who won at Sawgrass in 2019, is the defending champion after the 2020 event was canceled for COVID-19. However, his chances of keeping the gold trophy for a third year aren't looking great after his disastrous Round 1.
By the end of Thursday's action, McIlroy was seven-over 79 in the opening round, his career worst at Sawgrass.
And, in a twist that feels too unreal to be true, McIlroy was paired with Garcia.
"(It's) very hard, especially when you're trying to figure it out as you go along on course," McIlroy said, per PGATour.com. "You're trying to figure it out, but you still know you're not really sure where the shots are coming from and then it's hard to try to eliminate one side of the golf course, basically."
There were other outings that players would surely love to have back on Thursday. Henrik Stenson, the 2009 Players champion, shot 85. Rickie Fowler, who won in 2015, took a 77 thanks to three double bogeys. Tony Finau's 78 was also a career worst at Sawgrass by three shots.
As for what we can expect during Friday's Round 2 action, more misery at No. 17 and more dominance by Garcia both seem probable.