RORY McIlroy came out firmly on top in an early instalment of his so-called “rivalry” with new Masters champion Jordan Spieth on the opening day of the Players Championship at Sawgrass.
McIlroy and Spieth were placed in the same group for the first time since Spieth won at Augusta to move to world No 2 behind McIlroy, who extended his lead in the rankings thanks to victory in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play on Sunday. And the Northern Irishman continued that form yesterday with an opening round of 69, three under par, to lie two shots off the clubhouse lead held by Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.
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. The third member of the group, Australian Jason Day, matched McIlroy’s 69.
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 of the day from six feet.
The 26-year-old then holed from similar distance for an eagle on the par-five 16th and safely found dry land on the infamous 17th before two-putting for par from long range.
McIlroy dropped his first shot of the day after a wayward approach to the first and had a stroke of bad luck on the second when his approach hit a sprinkler head on the edge of the green and kicked way left into the crowd.
From there he could only hit his third shot into a greenside bunker but got up and down for par and also birdied the eighth.
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 closing 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.
Although he reduced the damage with a birdie on the 13th, another dropped shot on the 16th led to his ball coming to a watery end.
Spieth got back to one over with a birdie on the second but bogeyed the next two holes and 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.”
McIlroy, who needed just an eight iron from 205 yards to set up his eagle on the 16th, was pleased with his opening round, the result of maintaining a more conservative approach at Sawgrass.
“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 said.
“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.”
Scotland’s Russell Knox shot a level-par 72.