On the Stadium Course, it was fitting that Sergio Garcia produced a grandstand finish. The Spaniard had started the first morning at The Players Championship with a little jog to the tee after misreading the clock. He ended his round with a sprint for the line that was quicker than Piers Morgan’s departure from Good Morning Britain. It was a very good morning for Garcia at Sawgrass.

While his playing partner and defending champion, Rory McIlroy, sagged to a ruinous, debris-strewn seven-over 79, Garcia picked up four shots on his closing three holes in a delightfully assembled seven-under 65 which set a formidable early pace. 

A spluttering, misfiring McIlroy was so far off that pace, he was in danger of being lapped by Garcia’s thrusting purpose. Poor old Ben An, meanwhile, just about required the entire day to complete the famously mind-mangling 17th as he took a whopping 11 shots at the water-encircled par-3. It’s that kind of hole.

When it comes to Sawgrass, of course, Garcia is a bit of a thoroughbred. He won The Players Championship title back in 2008 and has been a runner-up twice.

The 41-year-old former Masters champion was already making good progress at four-under through 15 holes – his group had started on the 10th tee – but he shifted up the gears on the run-in with the kind of roaring acceleration that just about left scorch marks on the fairways.

An 8-iron into about 15-feet on the seventh led to a birdie and provided the catalyst for his late surge. On the next, he flighted in a lovely 3-iron – “the shot of the day” – into 18-feet and trundled in the putt for another gain before a 5-wood into a similar distance on the ninth led to a terrific eagle as the Ryder Cup talisman finished with a flourish.

“I just love it, it just fits my eye,” said Garcia of his affection for the Stadium Course. “I see what I want to do on pretty much every hole and then it's a matter of doing it.”

And as for that brisk burst for his tee-time? “I thought I had plenty of time, I don't know if the clock on the range was behind or something,” he added.

McIlroy was probably wishing he could turn the clock back after enduring a quite torrid day. After his thrilling victory at Sawgrass in 2019, and the cancellation of last year’s championship due to the global rampage of the coronavirus, McIlroy teed-off as the title holder. 

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By the end of the morning, just about the only thing he was holding was his head in his hands. His 79 equalled the highest opening round of a defending champion posted by Sandy Lyle back in 1988.

A wayward drive off his first hole, which led to a mucky double-bogey, set the tone for a dispiriting round. On his way to victory two years ago, McIlroy played the 18th hole in a text book fashion. Yesterday, playing it as his ninth, was like something out of a ghoulish Stephen King novel. He hoiked his drive into the water and put his third back into the lake before three-putting on the green for a grisly eight and an outward half of 43. He’ll need to produce an almighty salvage operation today to make the weekend.

“Obviously the big number on 18 didn't help and doubling my first wasn't helpful either,” McIlroy lamented. “If you take that 18th hole out it still wasn't a very good day.”

It was a good day, though, for English duo Matt Fitzpatrick and the evergreen Lee Westwood. Fitzpatrick, who has finished 10th, 11th and fifth in his last three starts on US soil, continued his good form with a 68 aided by a chip-in for an eagle on the ninth. Westwood, runner-up to Bryson DeChambeau at Bay Hill last weekend, put himself in the early mix again with a tidy 69. “There were some smelly flags out there,” he said of the mischievous pin positions.

On the home front, meanwhile, Russell Knox made a solid start with four birdies in a 71 while Players Championship debutant Robert MacIntyre, Scotland’s leading player on the world order, birdied the two par-5s on the back nine in a battling 74.