PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida (Reuters) - American journeyman Jim Herman was the unlikely first round leader at the Honda Classic after shooting a five-under-par 65 as world number one Rory McIlroy struggled at blustery PGA National on Thursday.
Northern Irishman McIlroy, looking to make a winning start to his build-up to the April 9-12 Masters, recovered from an erratic first 14 holes as he finished birdie-birdie for a three-over 73.
Herman, 37, has never won on the PGA Tour and was not even sure of entry into the tournament on Monday but he handled the tough conditions superbly as he stayed bogey-free while recording five birdies on the Champion Course.
That left him one stroke ahead of compatriot Brendan Steele who finished strongly with four birdies and a bogey on the front nine, after starting out on the 10th tee.
“I don’t recall ever leading (on the tour),” said Herman. “It was a little unexpected to get to five under.
“I was trying to keep it around par, thinking if you could get a birdie here or there and sneak in at one or two under par, it would be great.”
McIlroy, winner here in 2012, suffered a double-bogey on the first hole where he lost his ball off tee and though he pulled a shot back on the third, he bogeyed the fourth before making another double on the par-three fifth.
Birdies on the final two holes kept the Northern Irishman’s score respectable, albeit eight strokes behind the leader.
“The conditions were obviously very tricky from the start. You know, from the first hole, it was always going to be a day like that,” said McIlroy.
“I feel like I salvaged something out of the round the last couple holes, but it was just a day to keep trying, not to give up.”
Two-time British Open winner Padraig Harrington of Ireland, who has slumped to 297th in the world rankings, recovered from an early bogey at the second en route to a 67 that left him two shots off the pace.
Tied with Harrington for third place were Americans Martin Flores and Patrick Reed.
Shot of the day went to Spaniard Sergio Garcia who found water with his drive on the par-five 18th but he took advantage of a good standing position to hit a fully submerged ball out on to the fairway from where he saved par on the way to a 72.
Editing by Frank Pingue/Mark Lamport-Stokes