PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Had this really been the winner-take-all match against Tiger Woods that he had craved, Phil Mickelson would have, as they say, lost his shirt. That might have salvaged something from the day.
Mickelson’s attire, featuring a long-sleeve button-down dress shirt, was the most notable aspect of a marquee group in the first round of The Players. Social media was not all that kind toward it. The course proved not so friendly, either to Woods, Mickelson and playing companion Rickie Fowler. On a day when most of the field flourished and six tied leaders shot a combined 36 under par, the celebrity threesome had an aggregate 9 over.
Worst of all was Mickelson’s 7-over-par 79, marked by water balls on both the 16th and 17th holes. Woods was the best of the trio, but aside from an eagle on the par-5 ninth, he was mostly mediocre. He hit his tee shot in the drink on 18 and finished at par 72.
As a group, they drew a huge crowd, but never put a scare into Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson, Alex Noren, Chesson Hadley, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Cantlay, all of whom shot 6 under. The pace was so hot that the three big attractions never got a chance to concentrate on each other.
“When I left to go warm up, there already were 15 guys that were at 69 or better,” Woods said. “We had to go out there and [try to] tear this place apart. We had to be aggressive. This golf course is playing a little bit on the easier side and my responsibility was to go low and shoot something in the red today.”
By the time evening fell, he was content to save bogey 5 on No. 18 and avoid finishing over par. The fans’ fervor fell off, too. “They were into it early,” Woods said. “Towards the back nine it started getting a little sparse. I think they might have tipped back a couple and got a little sleepy.”
Many of them no doubt were wondering if lackluster play was contagious. Fowler (2 over) said, “It can be. I happened to run into Rory and it seemed like the three of them kind of struggled a little bit in the morning to get things going.” True, the Rory McIlroy-Justin Thomas-Jordan Spieth all-star grouping also had a bad day, going 1 under, 1 over and 3 over, respectively.
The Mickelson group at least had a wardrobe issue to talk about. “It’s actually good material,” Fowler said of the shirt. “I’m not sure I’m going to wear it on the golf course, but that might be my actual dressy night attire.”
Koepka plays hurt. U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka shot 2-under-par 70 despite having reinjured his left wrist on the range Wednesday. Koepka, who missed 15 weeks and had to sit out the Masters because of a partially torn tendon, stopped his swing in mid-motion on the eve of the tournament when someone drove a cart directly in front of him. Koepka said that if his 3-iron shot had hit the man in the cart “he would be dead.”