Rory McIlroy had seen them countless times on TV... the looks of utter bemusement, raw anguish or, occasionally, even self-disgust on the face of the world’s finest professionals after hitting their ball into the water at the infamous 17th hole at Sawgrass.
Yesterday at The Players, he was that soldier. The Holywood youngster’s jaw dropped in astonishment after his tee shot with a wedge flew the island green and splashed into the dark water.
He turned and looked at his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, in disbelief. “Did you ever see a wedge fly 150 yards — he’d still be asking as he left the recorder’s hut after signing for a first round 74 at The Players.
McIlroy might not have shot the lights out yesterday but he’d scored well and, after a facile birdie four at 16, had been two-under par as he marched to the tee at 17.
Then Sawgrass bit the 20-year-old Ulsterman as only Sawgrass can.
A treble-bogey six at 17 was followed by a bogey five at the last, where McIlroy once again fed the alligators after turning his tee shot a little two much into the wind off the left.
Yet it was that tee shot at 17 which left him completely nonplussed. “It was 148 yards to the pin today,” he said with a quizzical shrug. “I hit a wedge and just flew the lot. I don’t know if I got a gust or something.
“I wasn’t going big with my third shot from the drop zone. I spun it back to the front and took three to get down.
“It’s not a nice way to finish but I didn’t play that well today but I hung in well and got it round.
“I thought getting it to two-under through 16 had been good for the way I was struggling a little out there. I battled well but the way things happened through the last two holes undid all the good work.
“I’d struggled to find the fairways and you can’t afford to do that around here but I worked hard to the up-and-downs I made.”
Eight strokes off the early clubhouse lead established by American John Mallinger and Sweden’s Richard S Johnson, who both took full advantage of benign conditions yesterday morning to shoot 66, McIlroy knows he needs a below-par second round today to stave-off his first missed cut in the US.
Ian Poulter's 67 left him riding high on five-under with, among others, David Toms, who’d been eight-under par through 14 holes but bogeyed three of his final four.
Graeme McDowell, defending champion Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods were among those who shot 71. While the Portrush man was relatively satisfied with his day’s work as he girds himself for a run of six tournaments in the next seven weeks, Tiger was intensely frustrated that his scoring once again did not reflect the class of his general play.
While Woods has made a complete recovery from last June’s reconstructive surgery on his left knee, one wonders if his recent travails on the putting green might leave deeper psychological scars.
After signing for a one-under par 71, he’d sigh “this is probably the highest score I could have shot today. I didn’t hit good putts.
Playing conditions were perfect for those who set out shortly after dawn yesterday morning. “It was unbelievable. The golf course was there for the taking,” said Graeme McDowell, pausing for a second before adding: “well, as much as Sawgrass can be there for the taking.
“It was flat calm, the greens were receptive and really, really pure. This course is as well presented as you could hope for. It’s beautiful.
The Portrush man signed for a one under par 71 in the searing 94 heat of the midday sun.