PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Rory McIlroy outplayed Jordan Spieth in a duel between the world’s two top-ranked players, but another young gun stole the show with the clubhouse lead during the opening round of the Players Championship on Thursday.
Hideki Matsuyama, of Japan, fired a five-under 67 to take the lead at TPC Sawgrass, one shot ahead of Americans Billy Horschel, Ben Martin and Troy Merritt with half the field back in the clubhouse in the $10 million event.
Northern Irishman McIlroy, who played with Spieth and world number seven Jason Day, put together a steady three-under 69 to be part of a logjam of players just two back. Australian Day matched McIlroy but Masters champion Spieth struggled to a three-over 75 and fell eight off the early pace.
Matsuyama put up six birdies and just a lone bogey at the first, his 10th hole.
“I putted very well today. That was the difference,” the 23-year-old told reporters through an interpreter.
McIlroy, who arrived only on tournament eve after taking a couple of days off following his WGC-Match Play victory on Sunday, continued his good form.
He played the back nine first and started with a run of five pars before a neat birdie on the 15th preceded a brilliant eagle on the par-five 16th, where he hit his second shot to seven feet.
The 26-year-old gave a stroke back with a bogey on the first but dropped in a 14-foot birdie on the eighth.
“It’s about staying patient,” McIlroy said of his round. “There’s a lot of pars on my card, but I was able to pick off a couple of birdies and a nice eagle on 16, so pleased with the start. “I felt conditions got quite tricky out there at the end with the wind. It swirls a lot around here, and made club selection a little bit more difficult.”
But Spieth looked a pale shadow of the man who blew away the field at the Masters only four weeks ago, and he admitted he was having trouble trusting his swing after a round that included five bogeys and just two birdies.
“A really tough ball striking day, just couldn’t find anything really since I have gotten here on Monday,” said the Texan. “I was looking for something in my alignment, just didn’t quite trust it today until I was already too far behind the eight-ball. So, yeah, just a really, really poor day.”
Editing by Andrew Both