PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The PGA Tour gave its premier tournament even more sizzle by putting Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in the same group Thursday afternoon. For the undercard, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas played together in the morning.
None was anywhere near the lead at The Players Championship.
McIlroy was the only player from those two groups who managed to break par, shooting a 1-under 71. The best golf — and there was plenty of it during an ideal opening round for scoring — was all around them.
Top-ranked Dustin Johnson, Alex Noren and Webb Simpson set the pace early. Patrick Cantlay, Chesson Hadley and Matt Kuchar joined them late. All were at 66, part of the largest share of the lead in the opening round at TPC Sawgrass and the most players tied at the top at The Players Championship in 40 years.
"If you're on your game, this course suits you," Kuchar said.
That's been the story of the Stadium Course over the years — a design that doesn't favor one particular style of play. That notion was on overdrive in warm sunshine and moderate wind, conditions so ideal that 12 players were separated by one shot after the opening round. Sixty-eight golfers in the 144-man field broke par.
Woods wasn't among them. He shot a 72 in his first time at the tournament in three years. Neither was Mickelson, who had three double bogeys on the back nine and shot a 79. Fowler shot a 74.
"Toward the back nine, it started getting a little sparse," Woods said of the galleries. "I think they might have tipped back a couple and got a little sleepy."
Or maybe they were just bored. There was plenty of excitement elsewhere.
Johnson played like he was determined to keep the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Ranking, which he could lose if he finishes 12th or worse. He started on No. 10 and went out in 31, and when he rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 second hole, he was on his way. He only gave himself a few reasonable chances the rest of the way, though he was more than happy with his 66. It was his best score ever at this course, and only his fourth time in the 60s.
Rookies and veterans alike were in the group tied for seventh at 67. The rookie was former Baylor School standout Keith Mitchell, who didn't even know he was in the field until Paul Casey withdrew Wednesday. Mitchell birdied his opening four holes, made seven birdies over his first 11 and was slowed only by a double bogey on the par-3 third.
The veteran was 51-year-old Steve Stricker, who still can't decide whether to hang his hat in the big leagues or the senior circuit. He was irritated by making a late bogey and failing to birdie the par-5 ninth, settling for a 67, which was enough to remind him he can still challenge the best.
"I'm not surprised," Stricker said. "I expect to play well."
So did Woods, even after his putting woes last week in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. Back on putting surfaces he knows, Woods made a number of key putts. Except for an 18-footer just off the green at No. 9 for eagle, however, most of them were for par. There was also a 10-footer to escape with bogey on the 18th hole after he hooked his iron off the tee into the water. Woods hit only five fairways.
Mickelson said he ran out of energy, which he feared coming into the week. He was hanging around until chopping up the 14th hole for a double bogey, then adding a pair of doubles on the 16th and 17th with balls in the water.
The featured group in the morning wasn't much better. Thomas had a 73 and Spieth appeared headed for a fourth consecutive weekend off at The Players when he shot 75, which included an eagle when he drove the green on the par-4 12th. McIlroy topped his group but was tied for 55th overall.
"It could have been better. I could have been probably a little worse as well. It was probably a fair reflection of how I played," McIlroy said. "It looked like it played easy out there, but our group didn't feel like that with what we shot."
Two other Baylor School graduates are in the field. Luke List (70) was tied for 39th, with Harris English (77) tied for 129th.
The other former Red Raiders standout on the PGA Tour, Stephan Jaeger, is playing this week at the Web.Com Tour's Knoxville Open. He shot a 3-under 68 on Thursday and was tied for fourth in a group that included former Dalton High School golfer Blake Adams.
Athens, Tenn., native Eric Axley (71) was tied for 52nd in Knoxville, where former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga golfer Jonathan Hodge (72) was tied for 81st.