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Final

The Players Championship

McIlroy, Woods chasing Castro

Roberto Castro opened with a course-record-tying 63 en route to a three-shot lead.

gerald herbert/associated press

Roberto Castro opened with a course-record-tying 63 en route to a three-shot lead.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Rory McIlroy had never enjoyed a round like this at the Players Championship. Roberto Castro had never enjoyed a round at the Players Championship, period.

Despite being separated by three shots at the end of the first round, McIlroy and Castro shared top billing — with Tiger Woods, naturally — on a docile Thursday at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, where calm, wind-free scoring conditions seemingly begged the field for birdies.

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Castro made seven of them, and added an eagle at the par-5 second hole. The bogey-free round of 9-under-par 63 provided Castro with a three-shot lead on McIlroy and Zach Johnson. It also gave him a share of the course record, joining a pair of Hall of Famers: Fred Couples (third round, 1992) and Greg Norman (first round, 1994).

erik s. lesser/epa

Rory McIlroy had his first under-par round at The Players, shooting a 66.

He missed birdie putts on his last three holes — from 23, 16, and 13 feet – that would have given him the record low, but Castro wasn’t about to complain. He had never toured this track until Wednesday, when he joined Matt Kuchar for a practice round that served as his Stadium Course introduction. Smart choice, since Kuchar won last year’s Players.

“Helped, because obviously the guy has gone around the course and won. Feels like he knows what he’s doing,” said Castro, one of 27 first-timers in the field. “You kind of just have to step up and hit a shot in every hole. I kind of knew that going in.”

Stepping up and hitting shots is exactly what Castro did on Thursday, hole after hole. So pure was his ball-striking that he never holed a putt longer than 10 feet. Six of Castro’s approach shots finished within 5 feet of the flag; four within 2 feet. Five of the six set up birdies.

The sixth set up an eagle, perhaps his most impressive swing of the day. After making birdies on the par-5 16th (two-putt from 65 feet), the island-green 17th (19 inches), and the difficult 18th (2 feet) to turn in 5-under 31, Castro grabbed a 3-iron for his approach to the par-5 second, where he was 225 yards from the hole. He ripped the long iron right at the flag, his ball settling 4 feet away. The way he was putting, that was gimme range.

He knocked the eagle putt in to get to 7 under, then added two more kick-in birdies down the stretch: from 21 inches on No. 4, and 18 inches at the sixth.

“I hit it close a lot,” said Castro, a 27-year-old Texan who played at Georgia Tech, still lives in Atlanta, and is looking for his first PGA Tour win. “It was definitely an interesting round.”

McIlroy’s round also came at a good time. His brief career at the Players has produced nothing: three appearances, three missed cuts. He failed to break par in any of his first six rounds, so shooting a 6-under-par 66 was a first for McIlroy at the Stadium Course. Another solid round Friday will give him his first weekend pass at the Players.

“I came in here with not much pressure, and just wanted to go out and play well. That’s what I’ve done so far,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I’ve got the game to contend.”

Three previous visits here have wisened the young Ulsterman, and shaped the way he’ll go about his work this week. He’s learned that accuracy is the key, so he’ll keep driver in the bag for most of the round. On Thursday, he used it only three times, on Nos. 11, 14, and 16.

“It’s about getting your ball in play. I adopted maybe more of a conservative strategy off the tee this year, but once you put your ball on the fairway, that means you can be more aggressive into the greens,” McIlroy said. “The way I feel I’m hitting my irons, I can take advantage of that.”

McIlroy also was bogey-free, with five of his six birdies coming on the back nine.

Through 17 holes, Woods was on pace to match the blemish-free rounds turned in by Castro and McIlroy. It would have been the first time in Woods’s Players career, which spans 56 rounds, but he failed to get up-and-down to save par from behind the 18th green. The final-hole bogey capped a 67, which left him in a six-player logjam at 5 under. Still, it marks the only time in 16 Players that he’s opened with a score under 70.

“It was a day that I felt like I had to go out there and shoot something in the 60s. I made a couple of key putts here and there, and I really took care of the par 5s,” said Woods, who birdied all four of them. “It doesn’t take much to make a bogey around here. I’m sure that most of the guys, throughout their careers, really haven’t had too many days that are spotless on their cards.”

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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