Scott, McIlroy, Stricker as good as advertised

Adam Scott (left) and Rory McIlroy during the first round of the Players Championship.

Adam Scott (left) and Rory McIlroy during the first round of the Players Championship.

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Zurich Classic of New Orleans

Avondale, LA - TPC Louisiana

9:13:16 AM ET. 04/23/2014




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— Most unnecessary bogey of Round 1 of the 2013 Players Championship? Scott Stallings made one of the triple variety at the tame, par-5 16th, and Aaron Baddley’s triple at the 18th was no joy ride, either. Ugliest of all might have been Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano’s quintuple at the par-3 13th. But purely from a common sense standpoint, nothing seemed as heartless as what happened at the 10th tee with the 8:39 starting time.

Three weeks removed from a stunning victory at the Masters, Adam Scott was introduced as . . . “the 2004 Players champion?

“It was disappointing,” Scott conceded after his round, and playing competitor Steve Stricker felt similarly.

“As soon as Adam hit, I (said to him), ‘I was a little disappointed they didn’t introduce you as the Masters champion.’ He had a little chuckle and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s probably the most disappointing thing that will happen to me all week.’ “

Based on the way your Masters champion played at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course, he could be right. Scott, well rested after several weeks in the Bahamas, was very much on his game and did very little wrong in shooting 3-under 69, a serviceable start indeed.

The only thing is, he barely kept up with his competitors, Stricker and Rory McIlroy, both of whom went on the offensive and took advantage of soft conditions and benign wind. Certainly, scoring chances were everywhere – Roberto Castro, in the third group off of No. 10, shot 63, for instance – and no trio seemed to showcase that more than Group 21.

“It was perfect conditions for scoring,” said McIlroy, who finally walked off after a round at TPC Sawgrass and could smile. In three previous trips here (2009, 2010, 2012), McIlroy had failed to make the cut and had not shot better than level-par 72. So just how dramatic was his turnaround beneath pulsating sunshine? Try this: In six previous trips over the back nine, McIlroy was a cumulative 5 over with seven birdies; yesterday he shot 5 under with five birdies.

Have we witnessed the day when the kid from Northern Ireland became smitten with the Stadium Course?

McIlroy, who signed for his 6-under 66 to sit three back of clubhouse leader Robert Castro wasn’t about to go that far. But he did agree that he used to look at Sawgrass, see a lot of holes where he couldn’t hit driver and bring a bad attitude onto the course.

“I think I embrace the strategic element of it a lot more,” he said. “I embrace the challenge.”

Actually, what was easy to embrace in morning tranquility was the play of McIlroy, Scott, and Stricker. Flawless wouldn’t be quite accurate, but it wouldn’t be far from the truth.

“It was,” said Scott, “professional golf out there today.”

Their first nine holes, Sawgrass’ vaunted back nine, were especially pristine. McIlroy came up short of the green at the 10th – and that was the only green the group missed on that side. For the day, Scott hit 16 greens, McIlroy and Stricker 15 each. Fairways? Scott hit 12, Stricker 10, McIlroy 9.

Ball-striking brilliance.

Which translates into what?

“It’s fun,” Stricker said, clearly excited about the challenge put before him. At 47, he was giving up 23 years to McIlroy and 15 to Scott, which is to say nothing about the length. But he remains a PGA Tour marvel, Stricker does, and for every gauntlet thrown at him – like the 11th when Scott and McIlroy were more than 300 off the tee, 30 more than Stricker – the man from Wisconsin answered.

How so?

He birdied the same six holes that McIlroy birdied, for instance. Oh, and at 18, he hit his approach from 220 yards much closer to the hole than either McIlroy or Scott, both of whom were 35 yards ahead of him off the tee. Only a bogey at the par-4 fourth kept Stricker from matching McIlroy’s 66, though nothing stopped him from giving his stamp of approval to this golf experience.

“I enjoy watching them. They both have such great swings and demeanor on the golf course and a ton of talent,” Stricker said. “They’ve got so much offense. You know, I’ve got to do things a little bit differently from hwo they do their things, but it’s still effective for me.”

Amen to that, for while he is nearly twice as old as McIlroy, Stricker remains the consummate professional – to fans, to media, but especially to his competitors.

“I love playing with Steve because he’s got a nice demeanor,” McIlroy said. “The rhythm in his golf swing is great. He’s unbelievable from 100 yards in and he’s a nice guy to play with.

“He knows what he does well and he does it consistently.”

Ditto Scott, who easily could have posted 6- or 5- or 4-under had he putted better. Ditto McIlroy, whose day perhaps stood out only given how it was miles improved from past performances at this quirky but cozy golf course. The 74.0 Sawgrass scoring average he brought with him? It’s long forgotten in the wake of a bogey-free 66 that really looked easy.

“I think I’m in a good place,” McIlroy said.

Chances are, his playing competitors feel similarly. That day was that good.

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