PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Just as he returned from a one-month layoff attempting to provide an on-course answer to questions regarding his abilities to finish, Jordan Spieth had trouble finishing on Thursday at The Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
It was a highly unfortunate twist. Over the green in two shots at the 587-yard, par-5 ninth (his final hole), Spieth needed five more shots to get his ball into the hole, made double bogey, signed for 72, and was outwardly, and understandably, frustrated.
If his final hole wasn’t enough of a kick to the ribs on Day 1 of The Players, then add in the fact that the Stadium Course was at its most docile (70.06 morning scoring average) and that fellow competitor Jason Day, playing alongside Spieth, had just shredded the track to the tune of 9-under 63, tying the course record.
On this day, 72 felt a lot closer to 80.
Spieth’s finish was rough, mostly because he seemed to do plenty of good things on a day when he set out to shake off some expected competitive rust. Working on rounding out his swing a little more with teacher Cameron McCormick on the practice tee is one thing, but committing to those tweaks under the gun in a tournament round in a big event upon what usually stands as one of the Tour’s more demanding tests? It’s a challenge.
With his ball sitting in a back bunker at the ninth after a good-looking approach from 280 yards trickled through the green, Spieth, who surrendered a back-nine lead at the Masters in his most recent outing, appeared poised to get up and down for his fifth birdie of the round, which would have sent him to the clubhouse at 3-under 69. Totally respectable. But things quickly unwound. A chunked bunker shot, a chip from a steep bank that didn’t release at the top of the green and three putts from 20 feet led to another numbing finish.
“I hit two fantastic shots,” Spieth said of the ninth, “and then not really sure after that.”
Addressing his overall play in his return, Spieth, who said he felt comfortable over the golf ball, said, “I really only had two bad swings today. I’m hitting the ball great, which is what I’ve really been working on the past couple weeks, trying to get more consistent and better ballstriking, better control of it.”
If the ballstriking seemed there, the speed on the greens was not, with Spieth running a few birdie putts well past the hole as he eased into the round. Spieth seemed to have worked his way into a nice rhythm with three consecutive second-nine birdies beginning at No. 2. But he made bogeys from the fairway at Nos. 5 and 6, missing a pair of par-savers from 10 and 8 feet, respectively, and that swiped all of his momentum.
His poor finish was magnified playing next to Day, the World No. 1, who was busy piecing together one of the most solid rounds of his professional career. He hit 15 greens – ending up on the fringe on the three greens he missed – and was sizzling with the putter. He opened with a 30-footer for birdie at the par-4 10th, his first hole, and never did cool down, using just 24 putts.
The 63 tied a course record shared by Fred Couples, Martin Kaymer, Roberto Castro and Day’s Australian countryman, Greg Norman, who opened with 63 in 1994 en route to establishing a tournament record at 24-under 264.
Day is a complete player, but his length sometimes can get neutralized at the Stadium Course, one of the Tour’s more democratic layouts where all sorts and styles of games can contend. Making his score all the more remarkable: In his last go-around the place a year ago, Day shot 81 and exited early on Friday.
“I was really displeased with how I played last year, considering I was coming into that week feeling pretty good about my game and I just didn’t really play great in the second round,” he said. “But I can’t really recall the way that I hit the ball as well as I did today and then also putting as well as I did. I’ve shot scores lower, but I think from tee to green and then on the green, and then being patient, everything kind of just clicked today.”
Clicked? That’s something of a mild understatement. It was a near-perfect day for a player who’d missed the cut three times in five previous appearances, and he mixed in some spectacular shots, none stronger than a pitch to inches from 44 yards off pine straw at the par-5 second. Thursday was a roaster at TPC (mid-to-high 80s, with little wind), and Day relishes the heat. His golf ball flies farther (his 2-iron off the tee at 9 traveled 297 yards) and the warmth helps to keep his sometimes balky back loose. He exhibited great patience and a terrific game plan, hitting the driver only six times.
“It just kept on building and building, this round, just one after another,” Day said. “It just got better and better, and I made the right choices, good decisions out there, and like I said, I was just a little bit tired. When you’re a little tired and you really want to play well, you have to focus and give that little bit of extra focus into what shots you need to hit, and when you do that, you’re not missing any information. It turned out great, so I’m pleased.”
It’s a rare thing, a golfer leaving the parking lot at TPC Sawgrass a fully satisfied man. As for his fellow competitor, the World No. 2 from Texas? He surely could not say the same.