Rory McIlroy needs to step it up at Sawgrass as Johnson shows just why he's number one
Rory McIlroy's Players Championship challenge started with an unspectacular one-under par round of 71 at TPC Sawgrass.
On a day where scoring was good, McIlroy was frustratingly up and down throughout the round, and while he'll be happy to be in the red, he'll be equally annoyed he's not a few shots better off.
Unlike playing partner Jordan Spieth, who started bogey, bogey, eagle, double bogey, and found water three times in his first seven holes en route to a disquieting 75, McIlroy got off to a good start on the Stadium Course's back nine.
He birdied the 11th from 20 feet and two-putted the driveable 12th before following a three-putt bogey at the 13th with an easy birdie four at the 16th to be two under.
Unlike the day's standout performer Dustin Johnson, who hit an iron from the tee and made birdie, McIlroy couldn't resist his attacking instincts at the 18th and pulled a drive into the lake that guards the left side.
He recovered by getting up and down from 110 yards for a bogey five, making a 12 footer.
But after taking four to get down from greenside rough at the par-five second, slipping back to level par, he chipped in for birdie at the fourth to get back into the red and had to work hard to play his last five holes in level.
"It could have been better, but it could have been probably a little worse as well," McIlroy said.
"It was probably a fair reflection of how I played. I had some chances that I didn't take advantage of, but I got up-and-down a couple of times and chipped in, so it was okay.
"Looking at the scoreboard, it looked like it played easy out there but our group didn't feel like that, with what we shot.
"But I guess there wasn't much wind and greens were pretty receptive so you could have shot a low one. I'll hopefully make a few more birdies tomorrow."
On his "one in a hundred" chip-in at the fourth, McIlroy added: "I don't think people would probably appreciate how tough that was unless they were down there. So that was nice, it was a bonus.
"I was actually contemplating putting it, but even if I putted it I might not have got within six or seven feet, I just wanted to try to leave myself a putt, but that checked into the hill quite nicely.
"I thought it was actually going to go across the front side of the hole and you hit chips like that a lot, or not a lot, but when you do it's rare that they go in.
"It's a bonus if they drop, and I think that if you gave me another hundred shots I wouldn't get them in the hole from there, so that was nice."
Johnson sent a clear message to the posse of players queuing up to claim his World No.1 throne when he opened with blemish-free 66.
The 2016 US Open champion (33) tied 12th for his best finish in nine starts in the PGA Tour's flagship event at TPC Sawgrass last year.
But while Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose would be guaranteed that No.1 spot with a win, Johnson looks like a man on a mission.
Rose carded a four-under 68 while Thomas shot a 73 as McIlroy's other playing partner.
Johnson missed just one green in regulation, rolling in six birdies for an early share of the lead with former US Open champion Webb Simpson and Sweden's Alex Noren.
"I definitely want to stay there," Johnson said of his desire to hang on to the top ranking spot for a 65th consecutive week.
On the European Challenge Tour, Ardglass' Cormac Sharvin is three shots behind Spain's Adri Arnaus, tied for second after a three-under 69 in the Open de Portugal at Morgado Golf Resort.
Ballymena's Dermot McElroy is tied fifth after a 70 with Moyola Park's Chris Selfridge just inside the cut mark after a 73.