Rory McIlroy seizes lead at TPC Sawgrass amid controversy and struggle

Rory McIlroy seizes lead at TPC Sawgrass amid controversy and struggle

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Golfer Rory McIlroy turned a wake-up call Sunday at Bay Hill into his best-ever start at TPC Sawgrass to grab a share of the lead at The Players Championship.

But like pretty much everything in golf these days, McIlroy’s opening round at the PGA Tour’s showcase event in its 50th year featured controversy and debate.

McIlroy’s 7-under 65 featured a tournament record-tying 10 birdies but also two water balls and a pair of exchanges with playing partner and fellow Tour star Jordan Spieth. At issue was where McIlroy’s golf ball crossed the hazard line at the difficult 18th and 7th holes, where a heated discussion lasted several minutes.

Sitting tied with Xander Schauffele and Wyndham Clark atop the leaderboard, McIlroy seems unfazed by either incident and supremely confident in his decisions. Meanwhile, the loquacious Spieth avoided reporters and sprinted up the hill toward the clubhouse following a 2-over par 74.

“I’m comfortable,” McIlroy said. “That’s the most important thing.”

A comfortable, confident McIlroy has been a long time coming in 2024.

But something had to change following final-round 4-over par 76, featuring a front-nine 41, at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Rather than recharge Monday, the world’s second-ranked player headed to the practice range at TPC Sawgrass and found his groove during the next three days.

“Honestly, just needed to put the time in,” he said. “I grinded on the range and figured something out.”

McIlroy’s iron play was sublime — he hit 15 of 18 greens — and his putting spot on, culminating with a birdie outside 15 feet on the par-5 9th, his final hole Thursday. The 35-year-old from Northern Ireland finished No. 1 in strokes gained putting and No. 2 in strokes gained on approach shots.

“It’s probably been one of my best days in a while,” he said.

To build on the performance, McIlroy will have to avoid mishaps. Even his lowest opening score in 14 appearances at the Players exposed his penchant this season for blow-up holes.

Starting on No. 7, McIlroy opened with three straight birdies and added three more on Nos. 14, 16 and 17. But his drive on the par-4 18th found the water running the left side of the fairway, leading to the first decision on where to drop his ball.

McIlroy, with confirmation from playing partner Viktor Hovland’s caddie Shay Knight, settled on 293 yards from the hole on his way to a bogey. When McIlroy found the water at the par-4 No. 7, a meeting of minds didn’t materialize.

While McIlroy insisted his drive crossed land more than 300 yards from the hole and landed just above the red hazard line, Spieth and Hovland saw it differently. TV replays were inconclusive. Fans lined the other side of the fairway and enjoyed a limited view at best.

Spieth was particularly vocal.

“Everyone that I’m hearing that had eyes on it … saying they’re 100% certain it landed below the line,” Spieth said on the TV broadcast.

McIlroy’s response: “Who’s everybody, Jordan?”

McIlroy ultimately took a one-shot penalty and dropped the ball at the spot he deemed it landed and made double-bogey. But if the ball landed below the hazard line, a penalty and drop close to the tee box could have led to a higher score on the 452-yard hole.

“I think Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing,” McIlroy said afterward. “I was pretty sure that my ball had crossed where I was sort of dropping it.”

The hole took nearly a half hour to complete, but didn’t stem McIlroy’s momentum. The last time he shot 65 was during the second round of his 2019 victory at TPC Sawgrass.

Despite McIlroy’s fast start, Schauffele’s bogey-free 65 may have been even more impressive.

Just two days earlier, he and McIlroy found themselves on opposite sides following embattled commissioner Jay Monahan’s annual address on the state of the Tour.

“He’s got a long way to go to gain the trust of the membership,” Schauffele said.

The departure of top players to rival LIV Golf, including 2022 Players champion Cameron Smith, has left PGA Tour leadership scrambling. Six of the top 80 in the Official World Golf Ranking are LIV golfers ineligible for The Players, including Smith, Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka.

“I don’t think it helps the tournament,” Schauffele said.

McIlroy, though, praised Monahan’s record of ushering the Tour through COVID, the recent $1.5 billion deal with the Strategic Sports Group and the strategic alliance with the DP World Tour, where McIlroy cut his teeth as a teen in Northern Ireland.

“The PGA Tour is in a far stronger position than when Jay took over,” McIlroy said.

A day without controversy, distress or debate at its biggest event would be a good start.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at