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Russell Henley takes early lead at Players Championship

Russell Henley raises his hand after making par

Russell Henley raises his hand after making par on the eighth hole during the first round of The Players championship golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass, Thursday, May 8, 2014 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Credit: AP / Gerald Herbert

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Russell Henley made birdie on half of his holes Thursday in The Players Championship, which was more than enough to atone for one big mistake.

Henley responded to a double bogey on the seventh hole with a 30 on the back nine of the TPC Sawgrass for a 7-under 65, giving him a two-shot lead among the early starters on a day and a golf course that was ideal for scoring.

"I knew I was playing well and felt really comfortable on the greens," Henley said. "But it was one of those back nines where you get to 18 and I just realized that I had a putt for 7 under. So that was pretty cool."

But it was nothing to get overly excited about it, not with so many low scores right behind him.

Sergio Garcia, who last year spent most of his week at The Players in a verbal feud with Tiger Woods, was among eight players who had a 67. That group included Masters runner-up Jordan Spieth, Lee Westwood and U.S. Open champion Justin Rose.

Dustin Johnson and Ernie Els were at 68.

"Every hole is a birdie opportunity, but every hole is a double-bogey opportunity," said Els, whose round included an eagle when he holed out from the fourth fairway. "This morning we were fortunate. It was pretty soft, no wind, guys were taking dead aim. It starts blowing, it gets firmer, then it starts getting tricky."

It was plenty tricky for Phil Mickelson. Off to his slowest start ever on the PGA Tour, he continued his up-and-down season with a 75.

The four players who have a mathematical chance to move to No. 1 in the world -- Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Masters champion Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar -- all played in the afternoon.

Garcia is in a much happier place, with his golf and his mind. The verbal sparring with Garcia and Woods, who went on to win The Players, went well into the weekend and ended badly for the Spaniard when he made a racially insensitive comment at an awards banquet in London.

Garcia won in Qatar earlier this year, and he has a good history at Sawgrass.

"You go through ups and downs in your life, in your career," Garcia said. "And I've had really, really good times; really, really happy times. And then I've had times that were a little bit more down. I think it happens to all of us. You've got to try to enjoy those good times as much as possible and learn from the tough ones and hopefully make them as short as possible. I think at the end of the day, that's all you can really do."

Henley's career features two wins and a lot of missed cuts. Maybe this is one of the good weeks, though he was slowed by a hook off the tee at No. 7 that went into the hazard, and led to a double bogey when he three-putted from long range.

As much as he'll remember his nine birdies, Henley had two par putts from about 15 feet, including one right after his double bogey. He started the back nine with three straight birdies, and then put three in a row together toward the end of his round, ending with the island green on the par-3 17th.

"That was a shot that I hate to hit," he said of his hook. "But you've just got to stay tough out here, and if you don't, somebody is going to stay tough and beat you. I've learned that the hard way, and I feel like I just use it as motivation to stay tough and know that I need to stay sharp the rest of the day."

And he learned from his first trip around Sawgrass last year, when he missed the cut as a rookie. Henley said he tried to play aggressively last year, so this time took less club off some of the tees and played to certain targets. That's the goal around this Pete Dye course.

"Getting the ball in the fairway, getting a wedge in my hand on those holes instead of trying to bang it up there ... leads to hopefully a lot less big numbers than last year," Henley said. "So maybe playing some of the holes a little less aggressive has helped me to stay in there and make some pars."

Westwood regained some confidence with a win in Malaysia, only to miss the cut last week at Quail Hollow. He played bogey-free. So did Spieth, who played the week after the Masters at Hilton Head, and after a two-week break, appears to have lost no momentum. He picked up a pair of birdies late in his rounds, on Nos. 6 and 7, where most players are happy to get par.

Brian Stuard, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Torrey Pines winner Scott Stallings also were at 67.

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