As a two-time champion at The Players, Tiger Woods understands the role the Stadium Course plays as part of the championship.
“When you’re playing well, it seems easy,” Tiger said after playing last week in Charlotte and again after the first round of this year’s Players. “But if you’re a little off, there’s trouble on every shot. You never get comfortable.”
That was evident in the first round of this year’s Players as six players are tied for the lead at six under. Eighty-five players shot even par or better. Yet Phil Mickelson posted a 7 over 79. Jordan Spieth shot 77. That’s how unpredictable things can be at the Players and despite the star power put together by the pairings, the golf course came out as the celebrity.
“If it stays calm in the morning, you’ll see a bunch of guys go low,” Tiger said after an even par 72 in the opening round. “I think tomorrow’s supposed to be the hottest day of the week, and if that’s the case, again, the golf ball is going to be going forever. So this golf course won’t be playing very long.”
With more players tied for the lead than any other year The Players has been contested at the Stadium Course, there were birdies to be made. Webb Simpson made plenty of them and is one of the players on top of the leaderboard.
“Yeah, it’s perfect,” he said of the golf course. “Fairways are perfect, greens are perfect, and if we read these greens right, the ball should go in the hole. It’s fun to play golf courses that are this well-kept.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Dustin Johnson’s finish at six under. Johnson is the top ranked player in the world yet has never had a top ten finish at The Players. Going into the week, Johnson was aware of his lack of success on the Stadium Course but said he had a plan that would work if he stuck to it. “Yeah, I’m definitely surprised, but I think a lot of it has to do with putting,” he explained. “I don’t think I putted very well around here as a whole. I’ve had definitely rounds where I putted well, but for the most part I haven’t, that’s one thing I’ve struggled around here with and obviously today I rolled it nicely.”
There are plenty of up and down swings on the leaderboard with former champions Si Woo Kim, Matt Kuchar and Sergio Garcia all getting to seven under par at one point. All three fell back, with Sergio’s double-bogey, bogey finish the most dramatic drop. He hit a ball in the water on 17 on his way to a five, and missed an eight-footer on 18 to finish at four under.
“I don’t know that anybody’s overly comfortable here,” said Kuchar who was tied for the first round lead. “I think it’s such a good golf course, such a good test of golf, good shots are rewarded, bad shots are punished. You see a wide variety in scores out here. You see guys shoot 6-under and you see guys shoot 6-, 8-over. It’s just, it’s a great, great test of golf.”
As always, morning players on Thursday will tee of on Friday afternoon and afternoon players on Thursday play Friday morning. It was the morning players who seemed to have the best of the conditions on Thursday.