On-song Kaymer impresses
Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer carded a stunning round of 63 to spearhead the European challenge for a rare victory in the Players Championship on Thursday.
Kaymer overcame the tougher conditions for the later starters to equal the course record at Sawgrass with nine birdies and no bogeys to finish nine under par, two shots ahead of American Russell Henley.
The former world number one, who is currently ranked 61st, started from the 10th and birdied the 11th and 15th to be out in 34 before storming home in just 29 shots with seven birdies, four of them in his last four holes.
"I played a lot better the last four or five weeks," said Kaymer, who won the 2010 US PGA Championship and secured the point which ensured Europe retained the Ryder Cup after the 'Miracle at Medinah' in 2012.
"I didn't make that many mistakes recently which was nice; if you can keep the ball in play and take advantage of some chances it's a nice bonus so overall I'm very happy the way I'm playing golf right now.
"The ball-striking has been a lot better the last two or three months. At the beginning I couldn't make that many putts so I worked more on that the last few weeks and it worked out nicely today."
Ryder Cup team-mates Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose were all five under along with Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano to boost the chances of just a fourth European victory in golf's so-called 'fifth major' in 41 attempts.
Westwood hit the opening tee shot at 0715 local time but showed no ill effects as he carded a flawless 67, while US Open champion Rose and Garcia both recorded six birdies and one bogey.
"It's probably been about 21 years since I was the first ball in the air at a tournament," Westwood told reporters after his round, a reference to the fact that top players are usually 'drawn' into certain groups which take television broadcast times into account.
"Actually I had a little chuckle and thought, 'This is great,'" Westwood added. "Being first out is brilliant, it's better than being last out. Pace of play is nice, no spike marks."
The 41-year-old Englishman, who won his 41st worldwide title in Malaysia last month, birdied the first, second and sixth to reach the turn in 33 and also picked up shots at the 12th and 16th before safely negotiating the iconic 17th.
The island-green par three is the hole which cost Garcia his chance of victory last year when he found himself tied for the lead with Tiger Woods with two holes remaining, the 2008 champion dumping two balls into the water to run up a quadruple-bogey seven.
"It was a nice day, no doubt," Garcia said of today's round. "I started very well, obviously got to six under after 13 and just a shame I hit a good putt on five for par that unfortunately lipped out. I then had a couple chances that I didn't convert but I can't be disappointed with five under."
Rose was even more pleased with that score after carding six birdies and one bogey despite what he termed an "awful" practice session beforehand.
"One of those weird days in the game of golf," Rose said. "I had not much feel of anything that I was doing to be honest with you, and having played quite well recently, it was a bit of an out-of-the-blue moment. Sometimes it lowers your expectation."
Graeme McDowell recovered from two over after six holes to return a 69 but fellow Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy had to settle for a disappointing 70.
McIlroy was five under par after 11 holes but dropped shots at the third, sixth and eighth and said: "I played really solid for the first 11 holes but let a few shots get away from me at the end.
"Guys are going low so 70 is going to be pretty average by the end of the day but I feel like my game is in good enough shape that I can go out tomorrow and shoot something in the 60s."
Scotland's Stephen Gallacher matched McIlroy's 70 on his tournament debut courtesy of a back nine of 33 which included birdies on the 16th and 18th.
With Woods unable to defend his title after undergoing back surgery just before the US Masters, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar all started the event with the chance to overtake the 14-time major winner as world number one.
In fact, due to a quirk of the rankings system, Scott would have overtaken Woods if he had not played and the Australian must have wished he had stayed at home after making double bogeys at the last two holes in a 77.
Stenson, who needs a top-six finish, also found water on the 17th but returned a 71 that was matched by Kuchar, despite the American hooking his drive into water on the 18th to close with a double bogey.
Two-time Masters champion Watson, who needs to finish alone in second or better to overhaul Woods, was three under after a 69.