PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Nobody got out of the gate quicker than Scott Stallings, with the Worcester, Mass., native knocking in birdie putts on his first five holes to take the early lead Thursday at the Players Championship. He added two more birdies after his initial blast, including one at the 18th hole, but that simply let him sign for a 1-under-par 71.
“Yeah, I don’t remember making seven birdies and shooting 1 under,” said Stallings, whose five-birdie start matched Paul Azinger’s in the first round of the 1993 Players. “It’s a golf course that anything can happen, as I showed today.”
Stallings turned in 5 under, then added a par at the 10th. After a bogey at the par-5 11th when he hit a poor drive, Stallings doubled the 12th hole after being forced to take an unplayable lie. He was 3 under when he reached the par-5 16th, but when he walked off the green some 20 minutes later, he was back to even par. Two balls into the water — on his second shot, then after the penalty drop — led to an ugly 8. A birdie at the 18th capped a wild 31-40 scorecard.
“You’ve got to stay level-headed out there. You can’t get too low with the lows or too high with the highs, especially on this course,” said Stallings, who has missed the cut in eight of 13 starts this season. “You’ve got to compose yourself really quick and just expect that [over] the course of a 72-hole tournament, weird stuff’s going to happen.”
Hot and cold
Keegan Bradley also didn’t have much trouble making birdies, collecting seven. But like Stallings, he couldn’t avoid a string of bogeys and big numbers. Bradley dumped his third shot into the water on the par-5 11th (his second hole) and made double bogey, then closed his round with three consecutive bogeys to shoot 70.
In between, he played an 11-hole stretch (starting at No. 12, continuing until the fourth) in 6 under. The Hopkinton (Mass.) High graduate was on pace to shoot his lowest round on the Stadium Course (he had a second-round 69 in 2011), but couldn’t save par after bunkering his approach shots at Nos. 7-8, then three-putted the par-5 ninth from 22 feet.
Adam Scott, playing for the first time since winning the Masters, opened with a 69. He missed only two greens in regulation and carded a lone bogey, on No. 1 (his 10th hole). Scott had only one light-hearted complaint, though.
“The biggest disappointment of the day was the announcement on the first tee, because he didn’t introduce me as the Masters champion,” Scott said. Instead, he was announced as the 2004 Players champion. Bogey, PGA Tour.
Time well spent
Patience ultimately paid off for Scott Langley. The rookie from Illinois had a spot in the Players late last week, and could only be bumped if the Wells Fargo winner was someone not already in the field at Sawgrass. That happened when Derek Ernst — one of Langley’s best friends — won at Quail Hollow, relegating Langley to first alternate.
So Langley needed someone to withdraw if he wanted the chance to play for the $9.5 million purse, alternating between the first and 10th tees on Thursday and getting some practice in while the morning draw was on the course. Luck finally came his way when Bob Estes, part of the next-to-last group off No. 1, withdrew before his round because he became dizzy and experienced shortness of breath while warming up on the driving range. That got Langley in, and he went out and shot 76. Ernst, by the way, shot 74.
One day after filing a lawsuit against the PGA Tour over its handling of the deer antler spray controversy, Vijay Singh had a 74. There was one spectator at the first tee wearing a deer antler hat, and Singh had a short exchange with a heckler while playing the 18th hole. As expected, he declined to speak with the media after his round . . . Michael Thompson shot 69, and made the 25th hole-in-one at the Stadium Course in Players history, using a 3-iron at No. 8, which played 231 yards. It’s the sixth Players ace on the hole. Not to be outdone, Jason Dufner knocked his approach shot from 157 yards into the jar at No. 18, just the third-ever Players eagle there . . . Billy Horschel, riding four straight top-10 finishes, including his first PGA Tour win two weeks ago, said he wouldn’t be intimidated by playing in a marquee group (he was paired with Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson). But Horschel didn’t look comfortable, making double bogeys on the 10th and 18th and shooting 76 . . . Phil Mickelson three-putted No. 18 for bogey, capping a 72 . . . Retief Goosen withdrew after shooting an even-par 36 on the back nine, citing a back injury . . . James Driscoll, the pride of Charles River Country Club, had six bogeys and shot 75 . . . Peter Hanson made a quadruple-bogey 8 on No. 18, then made the turn to the first nine and finished birdie-birdie-eagle to salvage a 70 . . . The 144-player field combined to put 15 balls in the water on No. 17 . . . The 18th was the toughest hole in Round 1, playing to a stroke average of 4.424. There was the eagle by Dufner and also 11 birdies, but 13 doubles and three scores higher than that, including Hanson.