The opening round of The Players Championship is always a joy, and Thursday's effort in the 2021 edition of the event did not disappoint. This time a year ago, all the chatter was about whether there would even be a Round 2. This time around, it's all about the golf, which is a nice reprieve 12 months later.
Sergio Garcia shot the round of the day (and maybe the tournament) with an early 65, which we will dive into below. And while several stars struggled mightily (we'll dive into that as well), Sergio makes for a great epicenter at the top of the board after 18 holes of play.
It became apparent early on in the day that the 63 that Hideki Matsuyama shot in Round 1 last year before the event was canceled was nowhere to be found and achieving anything in the 60s would be Herculean. TPC Sawgrass played somewhat soft but also extremely fast, and Garcia said afterward that figuring out the spin on the greens was incredibly difficult.
The 17th, which always plays a starring role in this tournament, certainly did not play soft. Justin Thomas, who shot 71, said after his round that it seemed like they had that hole dialed up a bit. There was a 9 from Kevin Na and an 11 from Ben An. The last two holes on the course -- also the most famous ones -- played nearly 1 stroke over par combined, and those who started on the first tee had a harrowing closing experience, though Garcia played them in even.
Round 1 play was suspended due to darkness leaving 21 golfers that will need to play a few extra holes before they can start Round 2 on Friday. For now, let's take a look at Sergio's first round as well as who's chasing him (and who won't come the weekend).
1. Sergio Garcia (-7): Though the 65 might not completely convey it, on a day when the scoring average nearly rose to 74, it was an all-time round from one of the best golfers in Players Championship history. Sergio made two eagles, including one at the last (9th on the course) to put himself in the driver's seat to become just the second golfer since 2004 to win this event for a second time (Tiger Woods in 2013 was the other). Garcia has been tremendous from tee to green so far in 2021, and on Thursday, he nearly led the field in putting. He'll be hoping for even tougher conditions coming home so that ball-striking can continue to shine.
2. Brian Harman (-5): Harman was absolutely lights out on the second half of the course, shooting 31 on a side where the field average was nearly 37. A top-five putting day probably means a little regression on Friday or Saturday, but he struck it well enough that you could talk yourself into him sticking around until the end. Harman's best finish ever at this tournament is T8, which happened in both 2015 (when Rickie Fowler won) and 2019 (when Rory McIlroy won).
T3. Shane Lowry, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Corey Conners (-4): An interesting factoid here about Lowry is that the last time he won a PGA Tour event was the 2019 Open Championship in which Rory McIlroy opened with 79 and missed the cut. Rory opened with 79 on Thursday and will probably miss the cut. All five of Lowry's professional wins have come in Rory-less weekends. I don't know why I find this so interesting. Fitzpatrick and Conners are two contrasting players who got it done in the opposite way they normally do. Fitzpatrick has an elite short game, but he led the field from tee to green on Thursday. Conners is an unreal ball-striker, but he gained nearly 3 strokes with his putter. Both contended last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and both are solid tough-course players (if for different reasons).
T6. Lee Westwood, Tom Hoge, Denny McCarthy, Bryson DeChambeau (-3): Bryson was great once again, but it wasn't just driver all day. His shot on No. 17 was incredible. Back pin, and he hit it back left right by the walkway and just stood it up before sinking the 12-footer for birdie. As I noted last week, the driver gives him wiggle room, but his ability up and down the bag is immense. Excited to see how the next few days go.
Great point from Gary Koch there. Very few (any?) balls have stopped that quickly on the back of 17 today.— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) March 11, 2021
Bryson’s combo of speed/spin/loft easily holds the back left corner of the green. Yet another impressive advantage.
T11. Gary Woodland, Keegan Bradley, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed (-2): I did not see this round coming from Spieth. No really, I did not see this round coming. And the way he constructed it was even more shocking. Even within his resurgence, he's still struggled with driver but he led the field in strokes gained off the tee on Thursday on a course with a ton of water where he's struggled in the past. He was more than 4 strokes better off the tee than McIlroy, who is maybe the best driver in golf history. Spieth winning The Players after the ride he's been on for the first few months of 2021 would be perfection.
T26. Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Webb Simpson, Collin Morikawa (-1): Some studs in this category. J.T. was solid throughout the bag, and I was especially compelled by the way he hit driver. That's been killing his rounds of late, but he striped it on Thursday and birdied three of his last eight to stay in it for Friday (and beyond).
T42. Jon Rahm (E) and T59. Dustin Johnson (+1): Both were better than field average, but they also expect to be a lot better than that. Rahm actually needed par at the last to get in the house under par after a 39 on the front side, but he missed a short 5-footer. D.J. struggled with his irons all day after correcting driver from a tough five-round stretch. He doubled the par-5 11th, which is like losing 3 strokes for him. Not out of it, but he'll probably need something in the 60s tomorrow.
T140. Rory McIlroy (+7): It reads bad, but it looked worse. Rory doubled his first hole and hit two in the water on his 9th (the 18th at TPC Sawgrass) before making a quad there. There were no silver linings, and now he'll have to shoot 67 or 68 on Friday just to see the weekend. His floor has remained crazy high even as he's insisted he's been struggling. On Thursday, the bottom dropped out of it.