The 2019 champion at Sawgrass went off with Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler, in a marquee group consisting of the three best players in the world, with top spot in the rankings once again up for grabs this week.
That, along with the $4,500,000 on offer to the winner, appears to already be beyond McIlroy, as he began with a double bogey on his first hole and managed just two birdies in the 17 that followed. The 33-year-old hit only six of 14 fairways.
“You’ve got the four par-fives which are very gettable, and then you’ve got a few other holes, four and 12 specifically, so you’ve got six really gettable ones that if you’re on your game, you should be making birdie on those,” McIlroy said.
“I feel like this is as penal as I’ve seen it out of the rough for a long time. I think you’d have to go back to when the tournament was played in May, when we were in Bermuda rough, for it to be as penal as that.”
It was a better day for Scheffler, who began with nine straight pars before clicking into gear on the back nine, with a birdie on the 18th taking him to four under. Rahm is three shots further back after an opening 71.
The pace on the opening day was set by Chad Ramey on his Sawgrass debut, carding a bogey-free 64 that was just one shot off the course record. Collin Morikawa is a shot further back, with the two-time major champion enjoying a swift return to form having missed the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week.
“Last week I kind of lost it, I didn’t know where the ball was going and I think this score showed I knew where the ball was going and that gave me a lot of freedom to play golf,” Morikawa told Sky Sports.
American Hayden Buckley became only the 10th player since 1991 to have a hole-in-one at Sawgrass’ famous 17th hole, hitting a wedge beyond the pin that perfectly span back into the cup as he ran off in celebration.
At the other end of the spectrum, Aaron Wise’s day ended in disaster as he sent three consecutive drives into the water off the 18th tee, playing seven by the time he flared one out into the pine straw. From there he did well to limit the damage by getting up-and-down from 70 yards, though that damage was a sextuple-bogey ten as he carded an eight-over-par round of 80.