The Players Championship: Rory McIlroy has plenty of work to do to get back into reckoning
Rory McIlroy had to settle for a one over par 73 after a mixed bag opening round at The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.
McIlroy, who is playing his first tournament since getting married and signing a multi-million pound equipment deal with TaylorMade, birdied the last to move to within six shots of the lead.
The Ulsterman was level par after two bogeys and two birdies in a solid but unspectacular front nine.
Playing partner Dustin Johnson was also level par, the world number one following a bogey on the first with a birdie on the fourth.
Since 2013, McIlroy had played the back nine at Sawgrass in a cumulative 40 under par, 20 shots better than anyone else in the field.
But that impressive statistic took a major hit when he carelessly missed a tap-in on the 10th to run up a double-bogey six, before following a birdie on the 12th with another double bogey on the 14th after driving into the water.
But the Northern Irishman finished strongly with a confidence boosting birdie on 18 to bring him back to one over and card a 73.
Fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell had a one under par 71, while Masters champion Sergio Garcia recorded only the eighth ever hole-in-one at the infamous 17th on his way to a round of one over.
Garcia's tee shot bounced past the hole before stopping dead and spinning back into the cup, much to the delight of the jovial Spaniard.
American William McGirt and Canada's MacKenzie Hughes hold the overnight lead after they both recorded opening rounds of 67, five-under par.
"It's one of those places that kind of frustrates you to death and it frustrates me every time I walk on the property," admitted McGirt, whose previous best finish in the event is a tie for 43rd.
"I went with the 'less-is-more' approach this year. I played nine holes on Sunday, nine on Monday and then played nine holes yesterday."
McGirt and Hughes enjoy a one-shot lead over Americans JB Holmes and Chez Reavie, in-form Spaniard Jon Rahm, and Sweden's Alex Noren, while Italy's Francesco Molinari and former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen are part of a large group on three under par.
Defending champion Jason Day shrugged off a poor finish to his opening round as he targeted an achievement which proved beyond the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus.
Since the inception of the Players Championship in 1974 no player has successfully defended the title, with only six managing to win the prestigious event more than once.
Day's prospects of creating history looked bright when he played his first 11 holes in five under par, but the 29-year-old Australian bogeyed three of his last four holes and had to settle for an opening round of 70.
"To be honest I'm not that disappointed," Day said. "I played some good golf. Six, eight and nine were the only bad holes I played and they weren't really that bad, but the rest of the game was pretty solid, so I'm pretty happy with it.
"It would be nice to be the first in history (to win back-to-back), but it's day one, it's going to be hot tomorrow and play tough the next three days, so I just have to slowly inch my way up the leader board and hopefully be in there Sunday."
Day's victory at Sawgrass 12 months ago was his seventh in 17 events, but he has recorded just one top-10 finish in 2017, although his form has been badly affected by his mother's battle with lung cancer.
The former US PGA champion broke down in tears after withdrawing from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in March, just six holes into his opening match.
Two days later his mother Dening successfully underwent surgery to remove a "three-to-four-centimetre" mass in her lungs and Day returned to action in the Masters, finishing in a tie for 22nd at Augusta National.
"I'm just trying to gain some confidence, get back to working on the right things, doing the right things off the course that will hopefully produce the results on the course," Day added.
"A few distractions earlier this year kind of derailed that a little bit which is understandable, I had to be there with my mum, and now I'm ready to focus on my golf."