Coming off his worst performance in nearly a year, Nick Watney looked better than ever on Thursday in the Players Championship with an eight-under-par 64 that put him atop the leaderboard.
Coming off what he described as a “minor injury,” Tiger Woods looked to be in big trouble.
Nine holes into his first tournament since the Masters, the former No. 1 player in the world said he couldn’t go on. Woods withdrew after his highest nine-hole score at this event — a 42 — and had no idea when he might return.
“I’m having a hard time walking,” Woods said.
Watney opened with three straight birdies, didn’t let a double bogey slow his momentum and finished with his best score ever on the TPC Sawgrass — his previous best was a 68 — to take a one-shot lead over Lucas Glover, who won last week at Quail Hollow.
The surprise came from 54-year-old Mark O’Meara, who qualified by winning the Seniors Player Championship and who played nine holes of practice rounds with Woods the last two days.
He finished with a long birdie on the 18th for a 66 in his first round at Sawgrass in eight years.
“Even when I went to dinner with Tiger last night, my wife Meredith said, ‘How’s Mark hitting it?’ He says, ‘Short.’ OK, yeah, I’m not 32 and strong, but I hit it far enough,” O’Meara said.
Davis Toms also had a 66 and he managed to do that without a single bogey on his card.
Watney had not missed the cut since June last year when he had rounds of 76 and 75 for an early departure last week at Quail Hollow. Instead of letting it get him down, he came to Florida to practice and then came out firing.
“Last week in Charlotte, I got off to a bad start and I never really righted the ship,” Watney said. “So today to have a bad hole like that and still play a good round is a rewarding feeling, just because I didn’t let it affect the rest of my day.”
PGA champion Martin Kaymer, who can return to No. 1 in the world by winning or finishing alone in second this week, opened with a 67 and became part of the biggest news of the day.
He was in the group with Matt Kuchar and Woods, although it became a twosome on the back nine when Woods left.
“Nobody really knows how much pain he was in,” Kaymer said. “He was walking really slowly. He was walking behind us, but I didn’t know that it was because of pain or I just thought that he walks a little slower than me.”
Also at 67 was Rory Sabbatini, US Open champion Graeme McDowell and Alvaro Quiros of Spain. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, a two-time winner of this prestigious event, had a 68, along with Ben Crane.
Crane is significant for the bogey he made in the opening round.
On the infamous island-green 17th, Crane caught a gust of wind as the ball was in flight and it took over the green. However, the ball landed on the back of the wooden frame and bounced so far that it cleared the water and landed among the spectators. He then faced a scary pitch back to the island and hit the bulkhead in about the same spot, the ball rolling to the front of the green.
He two-putted from 50 feet for his bogey, which could have been much worse.
“A crazy day, a crazy game,” Crane said.
It was crazy, all right. There was Woods leaving early, Charley Hoffman breaking his putter after missing a short one and Phil Mickelson looking dismayed as a shot that landed on the 13th green rolled into the water.
“I didn’t know it could possibly go in the water,” Mickelson said after a 71. “I think when I design golf courses, I try not to screw the player like that. I try to keep it a little bit fair, but those things happen.”
Fortunes can turn quickly, as Watney showed.
He was never in the hunt at Quail Hollow and never looked particularly happy, but he was grinning and laughing with swing coach Butch Harmon on the range and he came out firing.
“I was definitely disappointed, but I figured there were two ways to react — you either sulk about it or come here. I flew here Saturday, did a little bit of work Sunday, just figured I’d get on with it and use it as motivation,” Watney said.
He holed a 15-foot putt on the 10th hole, got up-and-down from the bunker on the par-5 11th and nearly holed his approach on the 12th. Then came the 14th, where Watney was caught in the large mounds right of the fairway. He chopped up one shot and three-putted from medium range for a double-bogey, then bounced back with a birdie on the next hole.
His highlight came on the par-5 second, when he holed out a bunker shot for eagle.
Glover also made birdie on his first hole, which doesn’t mean much over the course of four days, but meant plenty to him.
“Got things going,” Glover said. “Just the confidence from last week, from looking up and seeing the ball where I’m looking instead of not, and that’s been an issue.”