Rory McIlroy shares lead at Players despite drama on 7th hole

Rory McIlroy shares lead at Players despite drama on 7th hole

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Despite hitting two tee shots into the water and being at the center of a controversial drop after the second one, four-time major champion Rory McIlroy opened the 50th Players Championship with a 7-under 65 to grab a share of the first-round lead Thursday.

McIlroy, the 2019 Players Championship winner, was tied atop the leaderboard with Xander Schauffele and reigning U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark, who had much more uneventful opening rounds at TPC Sawgrass.

McIlroy had just taken the lead at 8 under when he pulled his drive left on the par-4 seventh hole, his 16th of the round. McIlroy’s ball crossed a hazard, bounced and kicked into the water.

The issue was whether his ball hit above a red hazard line on the slope of a fairway bunker or below it. If the ball hit above the red line, McIlroy was permitted to take a drop at that spot. If the ball hit below the line, however, he would have to go much farther back to drop and hit his third shot.

From the tee, McIlroy was certain that he saw his ball hit above the red line. Norway’s Viktor Hovland and Jordan Spieth, who were playing with McIlroy, didn’t seem so sure.

It made for a rather uncomfortable moment in what was generally a comfortable round for McIlroy, who tied a Players Championship record with 10 birdies in a round.

“It would have been nice to shoot 62 and not hit two in the water,” McIlroy said.

Canada’s Nick Taylor and England’s Matt Fitzpatrick were 1 stroke behind at 6 under, while world No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler, the defending Players Championship winner, was tied for sixth at 5 under, along with Jason Day, Ludvig Åberg and four others.

Play was suspended at 7:32 p.m. ET because of darkness with nine golfers still on the course, and the first round will resume at 8:50 a.m. Friday. The second round will begin as scheduled at 7:40 a.m.

“I knew the scores were going to be fairly low today,” said Scheffler, who won last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational and is trying to become the first back-to-back winner at the Players Championship. “The golf course is pretty soft, and we had unusually low winds, I’d say, for TPC Sawgrass, and the scores obviously reflected that.”

Scheffler opened with a bogey on the par-4 first hole — his only one of the round — and then ran off three straight birdies. He picked up three more birdies on the back.

“You can’t really force it around this place, like I’ve said a bunch of times, you really can’t,” Scheffler said. “It was nice bouncing back after the rough start and just playing a really good round of golf.”

McIlroy’s contentious conversation with Hovland and Spieth on the seventh hole was the story of the day. After the round, McIlroy insisted that he saw his ball hit above the red hazard line. He ended up making a double bogey. McIlroy had a similar situation when he hit his tee shot into the water on No. 18, his ninth hole.

“It was just a matter of whether it was above the line or below, and I thought I saw it pitch above the line [on No. 7],” McIlroy said. “[No.] 18 was a pretty similar situation. Again, adamant it crossed, it’s just a matter of where it crosses. I think this golf course more than any other, it sort of produces those situations a little bit.”

Hovland and Spieth declined to comment after their rounds. Hovland made a double bogey on the last hole to card a 1-over 73; Spieth posted a 2-over 74 with four birdies and six bogeys.

The golfers’ conversation on the seventh fairway lasted about 10 minutes before McIlroy took a drop.

“I think Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing,” McIlroy said. “I mean, I was pretty sure that my ball had crossed where I was sort of dropping it. It’s so hard, right, because there was no TV evidence. I was adamant. But I think, again, he was just trying to make sure that I was going to do the right thing.”

After looking for his ball in the water and not finding it, McIlroy and his caddie, Harry Diamond, walked back to the spot where they believed his ball had landed.

Hovland walked across the fairway with his hand in his pockets and told McIlroy, “We don’t know for sure that it crossed the line.”

“I’m pretty comfortable saying that it did — that it landed above the red line,” McIlroy said.

“I thought it was really close,” Hovland said. “I can’t say either way.”

Then Spieth walked across the fairway and chimed in. Members of the TV crew had apparently told him that McIlroy’s ball hit below the line.

“Everyone that I’m hearing that had eyes on it, which is again not what matters, is saying they’re 100 percent certain it landed below the line,” Spieth said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

By that time, a PGA Tour rules official had arrived. McIlroy asked him to check with the TV broadcast, but he was told there were no replays available. McIlroy took a drop and couldn’t get up and down, settling for a double-bogey 6. He bounced back with a birdie on the par-5 ninth hole.

“I feel like I’m one of the most conscientious golfers out here, so if I feel like I’ve done something wrong, it’ll play on my conscience for the rest of the tournament,” McIlroy said. “I’m a big believer in karma, and if you do something wrong, I feel like it’s going to come around and bite you at some point.

“I obviously don’t try to do anything wrong out there, and play by the rules and do the right thing. I feel like I obviously did that [on] those two drops.”

Schauffele’s bogey-free round of 7-under 65 was much more uneventful. He started on the back nine and made the turn at 3 under 33. Then he posted birdies on Nos. 1, 2 and 3 and another one on the par-four fifth.

Schauffele ran into trouble on the seventh hole after blocking his tee shot into the trees to the right. He was 163 yards from the hole and surrounded by limbs. His ball was sitting down and there was one opening-straight up.

After telling his caddie, Austin Kaiser, that he could live with attempting a “hero shot,” Schauffele took a full swing and hit a high sweeping shot across a bunker and water. His ball landed in the fairway short of the green, and he chipped to 4 ½ feet and made par.

“It was over everything, but it was just like a window that was pretty high up,” Schauffele said. “I would not want to hit the shot again.”

The highlight of the day was Ryan Fox‘s ace on the par-3 17th hole, after he had posted an eagle 3 on the par-5 16th. He became the first golfer in Players Championship history to card a 3-1 on Nos. 16 and 17, according to the PGA Tour. It was the 14th ace on the island-green 17th hole since the tournament moved to TPC Sawgrass in 1983.

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