Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, reacts after his tee shot...

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, reacts after his tee shot on the 16th hole during the first round of the Players Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Rory McIlroy went from thick grass to a double bogey on his opening hole at The Players Championship. He ended his round the same way Thursday. In between was some pedestrian golf at the TPC Sawgrass.

It added to a 76, his highest score in just over a year, and left him more hopeful of sticking around on the weekend than getting back to No. 1 in the world.

“You don't hit it in the fairway here, you're going to struggle,” he said.

McIlroy, No. 3 in the world, played with Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler, a 1-2-3 group of the top players in the world ranking, with multiple scenarios of who leaves Sawgrass at No. 1.

Scheffler held up his end of the bargain with three birdies over his last four holes for a 68. Rahm barely held on as No. 1 last week despite finishing out of the top 10 for the first time since August. He three-putted from the fringe for par on the par-5 ninth hole and had to settle for a 71.

Only nine players had a higher score than McIlroy among early starters, and he was 12 shots behind Chad Ramey when he finished.

“This is one of those places when you're hitting the ball really well and getting the ball in position, there's a lot of birdies to be had,” Scheffler said. “But as you start to miss fairways and get out of position, it can go the opposite way very quickly.”

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, hits from the 18th tee...

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, hits from the 18th tee during the first round of the Players Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

Missing the fairway wasn't an issue for McIlroy. He wasn't off by much on the 10th hole to start his round, and he even missed the green in the correct spot, left of the putting surface with a right pin. But the chip came out hot, ran through the green and into a bunker, leading to double bogey.

On his final hole at the ninth, he missed the green into thick rough right of the green among the mounds, not the worst spot because the pin was all the way to the left. But again, the chip came out hot and didn't stop until it was in a bunker. This time, McIlroy took two shots to get out of the sand on his way to bogey.

There were other issues, particularly a three-putt par on the 16th. McIlroy had to switch drivers three tournaments ago at Riviera for the Genesis Invitational, fearful the face of the club was getting so thin that it might be close to exceeding the allowed limit for trampoline effect.

The PGA Tour has occasional tests that measures the effect of the ball springing off the face, and one of those was at Riviera.

Scottie Scheffler hits from the 15th tee during the first...

Scottie Scheffler hits from the 15th tee during the first round of the Players Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

“I just didn't even want to take the chance,” McIlroy said. “I just was not comfortable knowing that it could fail. Doesn't look good on me, doesn't look good on TaylorMade.”

McIlroy had been using the same driver since Riviera a year ago, during which he won four times and returned to No. 1 in the world.

“Look, I wish I could use my driver from last year, but I can’t just because ... basically it just wouldn't pass the test,” McIlroy said. “These driver heads are so finicky, it's hard to get one exactly the same. I'm obviously trying my best, trying to get something that’s as close to what I had last year. Just struggled a little bit off the tee the last couple weeks.”

He only hit six of the 14 fairways at Sawgrass, though he wasn't blaming it entirely on trying to get the club just right.

“It's quite a lot of user error in there, as well,” he said.

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