American Chad Ramey took a one-stroke lead after the first round of The Players Championship while South Africa’s Christiaan Bezuidenhout also started well at TPC Sawgrass.
Journeyman Ramey, ranked 225th in the world and playing in the tournament for the first time, shot a bogey-free eight-under-par round of 64 on Thursday to earn a one-shot lead over compatriot 2021 Open winner Collin Morikawa.
This is the first Players Championship taking place without the golfers who quit the PGA Tour to join LIV Golf.
Last year’s top three are all missing – winner, Australian Cameron Smith, who lives near the course, along with 2022 runner-up Anirban Lahiri and third-placed Paul Casey while former winners Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia were also among the LIV absences.
The reduced star power was further emphasised by the absence of two-time winner Tiger Woods, who is playing a limited schedule as he tries to manage the workload on his struggling body.
Canada’s Taylor Pendrith shot 67 and was three strokes behind Ramey along with Americans Ben Griffin and Justin Suh on a day in which the big names, playing in the afternoon, struggled to match the early scores.
American Scottie Scheffler, ranked second in the world, and Bezuidenhout were in a group of players on four under. Bezuidenhout’s round of 68 included an eagle, three birdies and a bogie.
The current top-ranked player, Spaniard Jon Rahm was one under after shooting two birdies and bogeying his penultimate hole, the 8th.
McIlroy the world No 3, struggled after making a double-bogey on the 1st hole and he made three more bogeys to card a four-over-par 76.
The 30-year-old Ramey has one win on the PGA Tour, in a weak field at Puntacana in March last year, after working his way up from the lower-tier tours.
He said looking at the leaderboard gave him the belief that, despite being so lowly ranked, he could contend with the big names.
“It gives me the confidence, and deep down I believe I belong out here. I believe I can beat them. It’s just a matter of proving to everybody else that I can,” he said.
“But it’s nice to see my name up there with them. I did win an opposite-field event, but a win is a win in my book, so I’m not going to complain,” he said.
McIlroy, the 2019 winner, struggled off the tee and said that was something that he could ill-afford on an unforgiving Sawgrass course.
“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. Yeah, you don’t hit it on the fairway here, you’re going to struggle,” he said.
McIlroy, who will be battling to make the cut as he sits 12 shots behind Ramey, indicated that he was not comfortable with his new driver.
“I wish I could use my driver from last year, but I can’t just because of — you use a driver for so long, and…basically it just wouldn’t pass the test.
“I’ve just struggled a little bit off the tee the last couple weeks,” he added.
McIlroy’s frustration was evident on the par-five 16th where he produced a brilliant recovery shot, clearing the water from the trees, but then three-putted for par.
“I need to regroup and try to shoot a good one tomorrow (Friday) and be here for the weekend. And there are plenty of birdie opportunities out there,” he said.
McIlroy had been grouped with Rahm and Scheffler as the PGA Tour looked to create a buzz around the top ranked players.
The first round was suspended by darkness with 23 players having not finished their first rounds.
© Agence France-Presse