Garcia leads Players Championship as McIlroy has day to forget

Sergio Garcia set the early pace at TPC Sawgrass, where four-time major champion Rory McIlroy struggled dramatically.

Agency News Contributor

Updated - 13 March 2021 11:24 am

Sergio Garcia earned a two-stroke lead thanks to a late surge in the opening round of The Players Championship, while defending champion Rory McIlroy endured a nightmare start. An 18-foot eagle at the final hole propelled Garcia to the round of the day – a seven-under-par 65 – and top spot on Thursday. Garcia, who won the Players in 2008 and lost a play-off in 2015, gained four strokes from his last three holes in Ponte Vedra Beach, where play was suspended due to darkness.

Masters champion in 2017, Garcia had eagles at the 16th and ninth holes (both par-fives) for his first round at TPC Sawgrass with multiple eagles – his 77th career round.

It is also Garcia's first 65 or better at the venue since 2013, after the Spanish star was almost late for his opening-round tee time.

"I thought I had plenty of time. Obviously I left the range at 7:35, I was teeing off at 7:40 so I figured it's going to take me probably two, three minutes at most to get to 10," Garcia said.

"I don't know if the clock on the range was behind or something, but when I got to the putting green just like 50 yards short of 10 I kind of looked at it and the sun was coming up so I couldn't see if it was 7:38 or 7:39 but just in case I just took a little stroll, made sure that I got there before it turned to [7:40]."

Brian Harman is five under heading into the second round, a shot clear of Matthew Fitzpatrick, Corey Conners and Shane Lowry at the PGA Tour event, where 21 players will complete their first rounds on Friday morning.

U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, who claimed last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, opened with a first-round 69, highlighted by six birdies.

Former world number one Jordan Spieth, 2018 Masters winner Patrick Reed and Jason Day are among 14 players tied for 12th position at two under, while Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas are a stroke further back.

World number one Dustin Johnson signed for a 73, but McIlroy had a quadruple-bogey eight on his card as the former world number one posted a seven-over-par 79.

Still the defending champion after last year's tournament was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, McIlroy returned and struggled dramatically after two balls found water.

McIlroy recorded 43 on the back nine – his first nine – tying the highest opening nine-hole score of his PGA Tour career (677th round).

Henrik Stenson had an even worse day than McIlroy, with an 85 from Sweden's former Open champion featuring two double bogeys and two triples and three balls in the water.

It marked the highest score of Stenson's Tour career, eclipsing his previous high of 83.

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