Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell in mood for business
Northern Ireland stars Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy were a shade off the pace set by Russell Henley with a spectacular first round 65 at Sawgrass yesterday but the quality of their play suggests both may be headed for a monster weekend showdown at The Players.
McDowell's trademark tenacity shone through as he ground-out a three-under par 69, his first sub-70 round at The Stadium Course since 2011, when the Portrush man stood Colossus-like over the rest of the field for the weather-hit first 54 holes.
After a savage stroke of misfortune led to double-bogey six at 18 that day, McDowell lost his mojo in the final round, then failed to make the cut in his next two visits to The Players.
Yet the way he recovered from back-to-back bogeys at 14 and 15, his fifth and sixth holes yesterday, and played the rest of his first round in five-under made it clear G-Mac's in the mood for business on a course which demands strategic nous.
McIlroy's first round 70 almost was the polar opposite to McDowell's as the Holywood prodigy clumsily dropped three shots in six holes down the stretch.
Yet there was further impressive evidence yesterday that, at the grand old age of 25, McIlroy has learned how to control the throttle around Sawgrass. And with its greens playing softer and more receptive than ever as they are pampered after sustaining severe damage over winter, it's more vulnerable than ever to his effortless power.
This helps explain how Henley, who beat McIlroy in sudden death at The Honda in March, could rattle-up nine birdies to cancel out a double-bogey six at seven.
Or that no fewer than eight early starters, Sergio Garcia, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, Justin Rose, Gary Woodland, Scott Stallings, Brian Stuard and the flawless Lee Westwood and Jordan Spieth, 20, on his Players debut, could all post 67s.
Yet McIlroy, who struggled to find a safe route around this Pete Dye masterpiece as he missed the cut on his first three visits, took-up yesterday where he left-off during last year's tie for eighth at The Players.
McIlroy opened imperiously, rolling-in an 11 foot putt for birdie at 10, followed by a facile four at the long 11th.
A loose approach to 12 led to a clumsy chip from the left greenside rough and bogey but it looked like child's play for McIlroy as he bracketed a comfortable two-putt par on that Desert Island at 17 with effortless birdies at 16 and 18.
After bringing his birdie haul to six at the first and second, a few errors crept in. These days, McIlroy loses the occasional long shot to the left. He failed to get up-and-down from the left rough at the par three fourth, his 13th, and made further bogeys out of a left fairway bunker at six and trouble to the left of the eighth green.
Intriguingly, McIlroy's now had seven bogeys and no birdies in 11 visits to the 237-yard eighth, while he's three-over in that time for the par-five ninth, including yesterday's two-putt from 10 feet for par.
Yet, as he said himself: "I'm swinging it very well and my ball-striking is right there. It's just a matter of making more putts and not letting a five-under round turn into two-under.
"I just have to play a little tidier over the next few days and get myself into contention."
When McIlroy hits the ball so sublimely into greens this forgiving, confidence and momentum must follow. Despite those few late slips, Sawgrass this weekend may be the place where he leaves behind all those "back door" top-10's he bemoaned last Sunday.
Meanwhile, play in the Madeira Island Open was abandoned yesterday as thick fog shrouded the mountaintop course at Santo da Serra. The first round will be played today.