McIlroy outshines Spieth
World number one Rory McIlroy put Masters champion Jordan Spieth firmly in the shade on the opening day of the Players Championship at Sawgrass.
Much has been made of a possible rivalry between McIlroy and Spieth, who were placed in the same group for the first time since Spieth's victory at Augusta National in April elevated him to second in the world.
However, McIlroy extended his lead in the rankings thanks to victory in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play on Sunday and continued that form on Thursday with an opening round of 69 to lie two shots off the clubhouse lead shared by Japan's Hideki Matsuyama, Canada's David Hearn and American Charley Hoffman.
In contrast, Spieth struggled to a three-over 75 and showed his frustration by throwing his ball into the water after a bogey on the 16th, while the third member of the group, Australian Jason Day, matched McIlroy's 69.
"I think anything under par, and definitely anything in the 60s is a very good start today so I am pretty pleased with that," McIlroy told Sky Sports 4.
"You just have to be very, very patient. I have a lot of pars on my card there. A lot of patience and picking up the birdies where you can. The first time I got here I felt it was a course where if you are playing well you should shoot 67 or 68 every time, but it's not really like that.
"It can jump up and bite you very quickly and you have to know sometimes that par is a good score and you move on."
Starting on the back nine, McIlroy opened with five straight pars before a superb approach from a fairway bunker on the 15th set up his first birdie from six feet.
The 26-year-old then holed from similar distance for an eagle on the par-five 16th - after needing just an eight iron from 205 yards for his approach - before dropping his only shot of the day after a wayward approach to the first.
McIlroy missed the cut on his first three appearances at Sawgrass and failed to break par in any of his six rounds, but carded an opening 66 in 2013 and went on to finish eighth, while c losing rounds of 69 and 66 saw him improve to sixth place behind Ryder Cup team-mate Martin Kaymer 12 months ago.
Spieth played the final round alongside Kaymer last year before eventually finishing fourth, the 21-year-old having played his first 58 holes without a single bogey.
The chances of repeating that remarkable feat disappeared immediately as Spieth bogeyed his first two holes and after struggling to a 75 he told reporters his putting had saved him from shooting 80 and that he needed to "find something" on the range.
"Sometimes you have bad breaks and have a bad day. This wasn't one of them," Spieth said. "I really struggled out there."
Rickie Fowler was six under after 11 holes before running up a double bogey on the third and dropping a shot on the ninth in a 69, a score matched by defending champion Martin Kaymer and 2008 winner Sergio Garcia.
At the start of the week Fowler and England's Ian Poulter were named as the most overrated players on the PGA Tour in an anonymous poll of their peers conducted by Sports Illustrated, even though Fowler finished in the top five of all four majors in 2014.
"I guess top-fives in four majors aren't that good," Fowler told reporters. "I'll take care of my business and I'll be just fine."
Tiger Woods had his head in his hands after a tee shot on the eighth which was struck so badly it found a water hazard 35 yards short of the green, admitting afterwards: "I'd never seen it. I didn't know it was there until now."
The 14-time major winner bounced back with birdies on the ninth, 14th and 16th before chipping in for another on the 17th, but then drove into the water on the 18th and the resulting double bogey meant he had to settle for a one-over-par 73.
The dangerous closing stretch lived up to its reputation with f ormer Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and JB Holmes reaching five under on the 16th only to find water on the 17th and finish double-bogey, bogey.