5 Things: Johnson lurks, Stallings wavers

Scott Stallings during the first round of the 2013 Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

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— Just one round is in the books, but this year’s Players Championship has already provided plenty of storylines.

Not only did you have Roberto Castro’s course record-tying 9-under 63 Thursday at TPC Sawgrass, but we also saw Tiger Woods shoot 67; Rory McIlroy record his first under-par round at the Players Stadium course, carding a 66 playing alongside Steve Stricker (67) and Masters champ Adam Scott (69); and Zach Johnson, Webb Simpson and Hunter Mahan all showing great form again, firing 66, 67 and 67, respectively.

Here are 5 Things you need to know from the first round of play on a sunny day along Florida’s northeast coast:

• • •

1. A LITTLE PLAYERS MEDICINE: Zach Johnson fired a 6-under 66 and enters Friday in a tie for second, three shots back of the lead. That means he has now shot 66 at the last three Players Championships (Round 4 in 2011, Round 2 in ’12).

Johnson has had his share of success at TPC Sawgrass, making 7-of-8 cuts and notching four finishes of T-16 or better, including a T-2 showing at last year’s Players.

“This one has always suited my eye,” Johnson said.

A return to the Players Stadium course could be just what Johnson needs.

His best finish of the season came when he placed T-18 at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which was a limited field. He was T-23 at the Humana Challenge, but aside from that, he hasn’t finished better than T-34.

Johnson is making cuts, though, as he’s missed just three in 11 events. But with a high finish still missing this season, Johnson could use the Players to get back into a rhythm, and his round Thursday was a good start.

“It’s important (to get off to a good start),” Johnson said. “It’s important any week. I don’t necessarily base my Thursday on shooting a really low number. I would say if anything it’s based on how I’m striking it, if I’m hitting my lines, and my process and that sort of thing, and that was good. . . . That’s really all you can ask for out here is continually staying in that rhythm and that process, and hitting good shots.

“But making a few putts and shooting 6 under, you’re never going to complain.”

• • •

2. JAMMING IT INTO REVERSE: Scott Stallings promotes the Players Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass as a place where “it’s not very hard to go the other way.”

Darned if he didn’t prove it, too.

In one of the wildest rounds of the 2013 PGA Tour season, Stallings birdied each of the first five holes, then his final hole. Oh, and he sprinkled in a birdie at the difficult par-4 14th, too.

A fistful of birdies, yet he shot 1-under 71.

“Don’t ever remember shooting 71 with seven birdies,” Stallings said.

Stallings certainly showed how things can go badly in a hurry when he played the back nine. After he bogeyed the par-5 11th, he was wide right at the short par-4 12th and his ball kicked into a bush for an unplayable. He would make double bogey.

After the birdie at No. 14, Stallings drove it beautifully at the easiest hole, the par-5 16th, which is where his adventure became troublesome.

With 190 to the front of the green, 220 to the hole, “all we wanted to do was cover (the shorter yardage),” he said. He hit 6-iron, but it was a bit thin. Splash. He dropped, computed the yardage, then went too long. Splash. His next shot found the green, two routine putts, and it was “an easy eight,” he said.

• • •

3. BACK AT IT: Davis Love III called it a “weird feeling,” but Thursday’s return to action after back surgery sidelined him for three months looked anything but for Love.

Playing in his 28th consecutive Players Championship, Love fired a 2-under 70. He made five birdies, including one at the par-4 18th.

“I was trying not to be excited, but I was excited and nervous,” said Love, who turned 49 last month, “It was a good day. . . . It’s nice to be back on the course.”

Love had a two-level disk fusion in February shortly after withdrawing from the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He’s been playing full rounds for about a month, but decided to make his comeback at the Players. He’s won twice at TPC Sawgrass, first in 1992 and again in ’03, and has five other top 10s in this event.

“They (doctors) didn’t want me to come back until they felt like I could compete,” Love said. “I could have played at Hilton Head and limped around. I could have played in Charlotte and done OK. But they said let’s just wait until you feel strong enough to compete. And I felt like I was there.”

Love said he held up “really well” on Thursday. He gave himself a few tough shots, most notably pulling a drive into the thick stuff at No. 12 and setting up a demanding second shot on his back.

“But, all in all, I felt great,” Love said. “My strength was there. I’m just a little tentative on some swings, a little (guided) off the tee on a few holes, and this course does that to you if you’re healthy or not. But I felt strong all day and I was excited about the way I played.”

• • •

4. WHERE’S THE SAND? Given that he lives locally, was a University of Florida standout, and won his first PGA Tour tournament two weeks ago, Billy Horschel was a hot draw with fans on Thursday.

He noticed, too, but that had nothing to do with his lackluster performance, a round of 4-over 76.

“There are times when I put extra pressure on myself, but it’s not because friends and family are watching. I don’t think about that (when I’m on the course),” said Horschel, who has notched four straight top 10s dating to his T-2 finish at the Shell Houston Open. “I was just upset and frustrated all day.”

On his first hole, the par-4 10th, Horschel was short with his approach and into a greenside bunker. His shot was thinned and bladed through the green, from where he made double. Three holes later, Horschel hit a bunker shot 20 feet beyond the hole and made bogey at the 14th.

“The practice bunkers have sand in them, but out on the golf course there’s no sand,” Horschel said. “That’s stupid, in my mind.”

• • •

5. SHORT SHOTS: Jason Dufner’s eagle at the par-4 18th was just the third in tournament history, joining Glen Day (1998) and Carlos Franco (2002). Dufner’s tee ball at No. 18 just carried the water and it paid off, leaving him with just 158 yards into the green. . . Outdoing Dufner’s eagle was Michael Thompson, who aced the par-3 No. 8 hole. Thompson opted for 3-iron, hoping to hit a low draw, and “hit it absolutely perfect, landed on the green and just tracked to the hole. It was pretty perfect.” It was the sixth hole-in-one at No. 8 in tournament history. . . . Casey Wittenberg is another player who could use a good finish at TPC Sawgrass. Wittenberg, who shot 5-under 67 on Thursday, has missed 8-of-13 cuts this season on Tour. He has five missed cuts in his last seven tournaments. . . . Webb Simpson also carded a 67, continuing a recent stretch of solid play that included his runner-up finish at the RBC Heritage three weeks ago. But he hasn’t fared well at the Players, missing 3-of-4 cuts and finishing T-69 in 2011. “I expected to play well, but again, I didn’t put that much pressure on myself to do that because I’ve never played well here,” Simpson said. . . . Padraig Harrington’s 4-under 68 was his best round since the 63 he shot in the third round of the Phoenix Open in February (He shot 68 two other times during that span). It’s also his best recent score by a mile – his last four rounds on Tour prior to Thursday were 75-80-75-78. . . . Retief Goosen withdrew after nine holes, citing a back injury. Goosen, who had played the back nine in even par, has made 7-of-13 cuts at the Players with his best finish coming in 2006 when he finished runner-up to Stephen Ames.

– Golfweek senior writer Jim McCabe contributed to this report.

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