PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — One birdie led to two more before Jason Day even hit his stride, and his round kept getting better until the world’s No. 1 player was in the record book and in the lead Thursday at The Players Championship.
He putted for birdie on every hole. His longest putt for par was 30 inches.
Day was as flawless as the morning conditions — summer heat, surprising calm. When he blasted out of a tiny bunker within inches of the cup on his final hole, he had a 9-under 63, a two-shot lead and a fresh memory of the TPC Sawgrass.
His most recent round was an 81 last year to miss the cut. This one tied the course record.
“It just kept on building and building, this round, just one after another,” Day said. “It just got better and better.”
His opening day improved even more after he finished. The Stadium Course was so vulnerable, mainly because of receptive greens and no wind, that 29 players from the morning group shot in the 60s. A strong breeze finally arrived after Day was done, making it difficult for anyone to catch him.
“I don’t know what the guys were doing out there this morning, but I don’t think we saw the same golf course this afternoon,” Rory McIlroy said after a 72. “It was a little firmer, the wind got up a little bit and those guys made the course look awfully easy this morning.”
Jordan Spieth couldn’t say the same. He played with Day and couldn’t keep up.
In his first tournament since losing a five-shot lead at the Masters, Spieth dropped three shots over his last five holes and labored to a 72. He ended with a double bogey on the par-5 ninth when it took him five shots to get down from a bunker behind the green.
“I hit two fantastic shots,” Spieth said, “and then not really sure after that.”
Masters champion Danny Willett, rusty from a month of being home with a newborn son and a green jacket, opened with a 70.
There were 40 rounds in the 60s and 82 rounds under par, the most at The Players since 1993. Even so, Day was eight shots better than the average score of the strongest and deepest field in golf.
“Tee to green was pretty decent — was actually really good — and then once I got on the green, I felt like I could hole everything,” he said.
Shane Lowry became the first player to shoot 29 on the back nine. He was in the group at 65 that included Justin Rose and Bill Haas. Ernie Els, who just last month started the Masters with a six-putt quintuple bogey, ran off six birdies and an eagle to lead the group at 66.
Rose looked at the pin positions and had a good feeling, especially on the island-green 17th. It was at the front, with a ridge serving as a backboard. By mid-afternoon, only four shots found the water. And with hardly any wind and greens still moderately soft, good scores were available.
“If there was a day to get the course, today was it,” Rose said.
Day wasted no time.
He knocked in a 30-foot putt on his first hole, caught a good break on the par-5 11th by having a clear gap out of the pine trees that set up a birdie from the bunker, and made it three straight birdies with a wedge into 6 feet on the 12th.
He felt tired. But there was no stress.
Day only got into what looked like trouble on two occasions. He had a stick behind his ball from the pine straw on the par-5 second hole and sent that shot well out to the right. But he hit a perfect pitch that just landed on the green and rolled down to a foot for a birdie.
On the seventh, Day’s drive hit the back end of a bunker and kicked forward down a slope and just inside the red hazard line of a pond, about a yard from the water. He worried about his wedge going long, but it settled 15 feet away for a birdie.
That’s when he started thinking about the course record, last match by Martin Kaymer two years ago in the opening round of his victory.
“Then I’m like, ‘OK, I think I can birdie 8 and 9, and that’ll clip the course record.’ It would be nice to shoot 10 under,” he said.
His 40-foot birdie attempt on the par-3 eighth looked good ball the way, and Day began to backpedal as the ball got closer to the cup, a move he first made famous when he won the PGA Championship last year. He threw up his head in disbelief when the ball caught the right lip, and he tapped in for par.
And then on the par-5 ninth, he hit another great bunker shot that curled back toward the cup and settled inches away for his ninth birdie and a 63, allowing him to join Kaymer, Roberto Castro (2013), Greg Norman (1994) and Fred Couples (1992).
The only disappointment was seeing so many other good scores.
“When you shoot a 9-under par round, especially on this course you expect to have a decent lead,” Day said. “Fortunately — and unfortunately — I’ve got only a two-shot lead.”
That’s not unusual for this course, especially with this field. Kaymer and Norman shot their 63s in the opening round and only had a two-shot lead, while Castro’s opening 63 gave him the lead by three.