Tiger Woods watches one of his shots during the first round of the Players Championship on Thursday sail into the trees. Woods shot a 74 and is nine shots back of the lead.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The TPC Sawgrass would seem to be the last golf course where a player can relax.
That might explain why Ian Poulter and Martin Laird were atop the leaderboard Thursday in The Players Championship at 7-under 65, even if their mood was for entirely different reasons.
Poulter finally moved in his new home at Lake Nona that took nearly three years to build and caused him enough grief that he said he could write a book. It took so long to unpack boxes last week that he barely had time to practice, but at least his head was clear.
“All of the hassle and stress is over, and I can just go out and play golf,” Poulter said.
Laird recently parted with his longtime caddie, and hired a new looper who also is a friend and closer to his age.
“It was kind of nice to be out on the course and be able to chat away to someone that’s my age and is like a friend as opposed to a caddie,” he said. “That definitely helped keep me a little more relaxed on the golf course, and it feeds through all parts of your game, down to your putting.”
It wasn’t like that for everyone.
Four players withdrew with various injuries and high scores. Sunghoon Kang opened with a quadruple-bogey 9, followed with eagle-par-birdie and lost four shots over the last four holes. Jerry Kelly made four birdies and shot 82.
Tiger Woods brought a small degree of normalcy, not necessarily a good thing for him at Sawgrass. He has never broken 70 in his 15 years at The Players Championship, and he extended that streak with a sloppy 74. This might be costly, however, because it put him in a tie for 100th and put him in serious danger of missing the cut for the second straight week. He has only missed eight cuts in his career.
“Just one of those weird days,” Woods said, and there seems to be a lot of those lately.
Poulter ran off four straight birdies around the turn and birdied all of the par 5s, key for this golf course. Laird was the only player without a bogey on his card. He made birdie on his final hole to catch Poulter, although his focus was more on his scorecard than the leaderboard.
“I knew I hadn’t made a 5 all day, and that was kind of a little goal I had,” said Laird, who finished on the par-5 ninth. “Nothing to do with getting to 7 under. It was, ‘I don’t want to make a 5 all day.’”
They were a shot ahead of Blake Adams, with Ben Crane and Kevin Na another shot behind. The 11 players at 68 included Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar, Ben Curtis and FedEx champion Bill Haas. There were 27 players who shot in the 60s, and more than half the field broke par.
Woods was not among them. Not even close.
“I just didn’t score,” Woods said. “It was frustrating in the sense that my good shots ended up in bad spots, and obviously, my bad shots ended up in worse spots.”
The conditions were ideal for scoring for those hitting it where they were aiming, and making their share of putts.
Adams ran off five straight birdies early in his round and kept the mistakes to a minimum. Na shot 30 on the back nine.
Sawgrass, though, punishes even the slightest mistakes.
Rory McIlroy, the world No. 1, was 2 under for his round until coming up just short of the island-green 17th and making double bogey. He wound up with a 72, while Phil Mickelson had a 71 in his first round after being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Lee Westwood had a 71, irritated only because of seven birdies on his card.
Poulter’s new home looks more like a hotel, and it took about as long to build. It became such a headache for him that when asked to go over the problems he had with contractors, Poulter looked at his watch and said, “How long you got?”
With that out of the way, his mind was free for golf, on a course that seems to suit him well. He was runner-up three years ago, four shots behind Henrik Stenson. But Poulter found the right recipe on a sunny, warm day at Sawgrass. His birdie putts on the par 5s were all within about 5 feet. When he started missing greens on the back nine, he chipped close for par. He hit 9-iron to a front pin on the island-green 17th to about 10 feet for birdie, then made it through the 18th without drama.
“I played really solid today and holed the right putts at the right times,” Poulter said. “I feel like I’m back to normal, and I feel like I’m out there playing the golf I feel I should be playing.”
Adams is playing this event for only the second time — he missed the cut last year with rounds of 72-76 — and hasn’t been getting much out of his game this year. He told his caddie and coach that it was time to stop trying to hit the perfect shots and enjoy himself, and a 66 left him thrilled.
“I was just trying to make every putt,” he said about his run of birdies.
Sawgrass took its share of victims, as usual.
The star group of the morning was Woods, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan, the only player with two wins this year. None of them were particularly impressive. Fowler, the winner Sunday at Quail Hollow, failed to save par when missing greens that killed his momentum and shot 72, while Mahan hit two shots into the water on his way to a 74.
Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera played a solid round, if only golf were a 16-hole round. He went over the 11th green and into the water, leading to a double bogey. And then he reached the island-green 17th, which proved to his undoing. His first shot went into the water. Cabrera went to the drop area and saw two more balls sink to the bottom of the pond for a 9. He played those who holes in 8 over and shot 78. He withdrew for “personal reasons.”
Na opened with a 30 on the back nine was feeling good until his ball got stuck in a tree and never came down on the first hole, leading to a double bogey.
“I made the turn at 30 and I’m thinking, ‘A few more on this side to have a chance for a course record. I don’t know what the course record is — 63?” he said. “I figured if I got two or three more … it was very doable. But right off the bat, I made double, so that was a pipe dream.”
It’s dangerous to look ahead on this golf course. Poulter was tempted — not so much for the crystal trophy, but what he could do with the $1.71 million winner’s check.
A new house, perhaps?
“I’ll buy another car, for sure,” he said. “Ferrari Enzo. Been looking for one of them for a while.”