Rory McIlroy finally figured out that playing conservatively would be the best way to attack the TPC Sawgrass.
It was boring by his standards — 14 pars, a pair of birdies, an eagle and a bogey.
Compared with all the other high-wire acts during the opening round at The Players Championship, that wasn't all bad. McIlroy pieced together a 3-under 69 Thursday that left him two shots behind a four-way tie for the lead.
Tiger Woods hit a tee shot into water he didn't know existed. He shot 73, the fifth straight tournament that he failed to break par in the opening round.
Jordan Spieth was 40 yards from the green and hit a wedge three straight times before getting there. He shot 75, matching his highest score of the year.
Brooks Koepka played the last two holes in 15 shots — a quadruple bogey on the 17th, another one on the 18th. He played the other 16 holes in 1 under.
The entertainment was endless.
One of the leaders was Charley Hoffman. He made history Thursday on the Stadium Course with a 5-under 67, the lowest score ever by someone who had a triple bogey on his card. Hoffman made his 7 after playing the entire back nine in 31 strokes. He also had eight birdies in his round, so it was easy to go over how he made his triple bogey.
"Pardon my French," Hoffman began before using an English word (code name: expletive) to describe each shot. A bad drive. A bad punch shot that didn't make it to the fairway. A bad approach. It adds quickly. He did have one good shot — his 4-foot putt that kept the 7 from being an 8.
"Obviously, you don't ever want to take a triple, double, quad, whatever it is," Hoffman said. "But at least I gave myself time to get them back. It's better than doing it on the 72nd hole, I can guarantee you that."
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, David Hearn of Canada and Kevin Na also had a 67 by making only one bogey each and none with a score higher than 5 on the card.
The large group at 68 included Derek Fathauer, who played a six-hole stretch in 3 under despite making only one par — eagle-birdie-eagle-bogey-par-bogey.
McIlroy is coming off a victory in the Match Play Championship, and while the formats are nothing alike, he was able to carry over one aspect. He didn't give away many holes at Harding Park. He didn't give away many shots at TPC Sawgrass.
"Being able to limit your mistakes and make pars and not make many mistakes, that's something that I need to do around this golf course," McIlroy said.
He was part of the feature group, even with Woods and Phil Mickelson (73) playing in back-to-back threesomes in the afternoon.
The world's No. 1 player McIlroy played with Spieth, the No. 2 player after his dominant Masters victory. Joining them was no slouch — Jason Day, the No. 7 player and part of a big youth movement in golf.
McIlroy and Day held their own at 69, which for Day included a 25-foot putt to salvage double bogey on the 18th. Day didn't mind being looked upon as the third wheel.
"I've got to beat those guys, but I think the biggest thing is not beating myself," Day said.
That's a good recipe for anyone at Sawgrass.
Spieth, who also had a 75 when he missed the cut at Torrey Pines, felt something wrong with his alignment when he arrived Monday, and he still hasn't sorted it out. He got behind quickly, and that didn't help. Most telling of his day was No. 11.
His second shot was left of the green in a grass bunker, the ball sitting so far down in the grass that Spieth walked up to it and said, "You've got to be kidding me." With a full, powerful swing, he advanced it some 50 feet — from a regular lie, the shot would have gone 110 yards — to just under the lip of a bunker. It was another bad lie, and he only advanced the next one 18 feet to the collar.
"It's just one of those days where I started maybe looking into it a little too much rather than just accepting it and going forward," he said. "Just going to have to find some answers."
Woods, meanwhile, brings a certain level of curiosity with him. He sat out two months trying to fix his game — particularly his short game — and then tied for 17th in the Masters. This was his first event since Augusta National, and he was irritated by a 73.
"Probably the highest score I could have shot today," he said.
It ended on a wild note. He used the belly wedge to roll in a birdie on the 17th after his ball came within a foot of going in the water. And then he walked over to 18 and hit his tee shot into the water for a double bogey.
Around every corner, there is a surprise. That's the beauty — and the pain — of Sawgrass.