The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is vulnerable in Thursday's opening round and the best golfers in the world have taken advantage at the 2013 Players Championship. The red numbers started piling up first thing in the morning while most were still having breakfast, as Scott Stallings opened with five birdies on his first five holes. He made a push at the nine-hole record (a 30) but just missed and went out in 31. He has cooled off considerably since that start, but he demonstrated early that there were plenty of opportunities for players to shoot their way into the low-to-mid 60s.
One player who followed Stallings with an impressive first nine is Rory McIlroy, the world's No. 2 player who is still seeking his first 2013 win. Since he debuted with his new Nike clubs in Abu Dhabi in January, it's been a rough climb for Rory to find the same 2012 form that propelled him to No. 1. He looked solid last week at Quail Hollow, but he had missed the cut in his previous three appearances at TPC Sawgrass. His track record at Pete Dye courses, however, is not all bad as he won last year's PGA Championship (Kiawah) and BMW Championship (Crooked Stick) on Dye originals.
McIlroy went off the back side, and made the turn in 5-under 31. He birdied two of his first three holes, and saved par with a nifty up-and-down lob shot. On No. 14, McIlroy put his approach within two feet of the hole, dropping his iron shot right on top of the stick and spinning it close for the tap-in birdie. It looked like he might miss a birdie chance on the par-5 16th when he put his drive in the rough and had to lay-up. But he put his third shot shot left of the pin to give himself a shot at a four. He sank the putt from the edge of the green to move to 4-under, with the two tough finishing holes at TPC Sawgrass still ahead of him. On the island green at No. 17, he struck his tee shot to inside six feet and cleaned up that putt for one more birdie on his opening nine.
Rory will have multiple chances to add to his 5-under number on the front side -- the same stretch where Stallings canned five birdies in a row. While he's in excellent shape, he'll need to add several more in order to chase down Roberto Castro, the leader at 9-under through his first 15 holes. Castro, who turned pro in 2007, has never won on the PGA Tour but he's been unconscious at their marquee event on Thursday and is chasing the tournament course record (63) held by Greg Norman and Fred Couples. Here's a snapshot of the leaders and some notables who are chasing Castro: