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2023 Players Championship: Scottie Scheffler’s smarts, Rory McIlroy’s woes lead nine takeaways from Round 1

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A pair of young stars are in contention following the first round of the 2023 Players Championship. Collin Morikawa roared out the gates Thursday morning at TPC Sawgrass, firing a bogey free 7-under 65 to sit one stroke off Chad Ramey’s lead. Coming into this week amidst a boom-or-bust five-tournament stretch that has included two missed cuts and three top-10 finishes, Morikawa appears to be booming early.

Yet he is not the only young major champion to play himself into the mix at the PGA Tour’s flagship event as the reigning Player of the Year has as well. Scottie Scheffler’s day wasn’t quite as flashy as that of Morikawa, but it was enough for him to sign for a 4-under 68. Beginning his day with nine straight pars, the world No. 2 rode five back-nine birdies to the first page of the leaderboard.

Viktor Hovland, Jordan Spieth and Cameron Young rounded out the action on Thursday with solid efforts in the more difficult afternoon wave and will look to keep the pedal to the metal early Friday. Also needing to do some damage is world No. 1 Jon Rahm (-1) and world No. 3 Rory McIlroy (+4), who finds himself near the bottom of the leaderboard.

Here are 10 thoughts from the opening round of the 2023 Players Championship.

1. Chad Ramey? Get to know Ramey now because this probably isn’t going to last. Ramey gained five strokes with his putter on Thursday, which is completely unsustainable. He doesn’t have a single top 20 in his last 25 starts worldwide, and he came in having missed three consecutive cuts. So, of course (of course!) he beat Rory by 12 in Round 1.

What the former Mississippi State Bulldogs golfers does provide is a fascinating subplot after 18 holes. Can somebody who’s been pretty subpar PGA Tour golf for the last six months possibly upend Morikawa, Speth and Scheffler at TPC Sawgrass to win the Players?!

“It gives me the confidence, and deep down I believe I belong out here,” said Ramey, whose only PGA Tour win was the Puerto Rico Open last March. “I believe I can beat them. It’s just a matter of, I guess, proving to everybody else that I can. But it’s nice to see my name up there with them because I did win an opposite-field event, but a win is a win in my book, so I’m not going to complain.”

2. Morikawa crushing: When Morikawa hits, he hits. His 2023 has been a microcosm of that so far. In his last five starts, he has two missed cuts and three top-six finishes. The stat that gets cited (that I’ve cited) during runs of good play like this is his putting prowess. While this is technically true, it also doesn’t tell the entire story. Data Golf noted that Morikawa is one of the best in the world at pairing a great putting week with a great ball-striking week, which is what it looks like he’s going to do this week. 

On Thursday, Morikawa gained right at a stroke on the greens, but he led the field in iron play and tee-to-green play overall. That is a scary formula and one that has led to a career’s worth of victories for him in just the last few years. Especially for somebody who says he’s playing with a lot of freedom once again.

“I would say, for the most part, I’m back to playing how I used to.” he said. “I’m trying to enjoy it. I would say, this week, what I found earlier this week, my swing hasn’t looked this good probably since 2019 when I first came out. I’ve played very well, 2020, 2021, but position-wise I just love where I’m at right now and just freeing everything up, just allowing me to just look up at my target and hit the ball and hopefully it goes where I want it.”

3. Smart Scheff: The No. 2 player in the Official World Golf Rankings is somehow still underrated. Scheffler came into this week nearly two full strokes per tournament better in ball-striking than the second best ball-striker in the world so far in 2023. That’s astonishing. It continued on Thursday. Scheffler gained nearly five strokes on the field from tee to green, and he did it by playing smart shot after smart shot and making putts when they presented themselves.

Here’s an example at the par-3 8th hole. Scheffler played to the left side of the green, the meat of it, while playing partners Rahm and McIlroy hit poor shots long and right, indicating that they were likely ripping at this right pin. They combined to play it 1 over while Scheffler made a 1-foot par putt. This is a microcosm of his wisdom, but add it up over 18 or 72 holes — and combine it with his ball-striking talent — and you start to see why he wins so many golf tournaments.


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4. Cramping Min Woo: I felt horrible for Min Woo Lee, but at the same time, I found myself cackling at the sight of a grown man bending his body over the back of a lawn chair while another grown man with slicked-back white hair — that some folks on Twitter said resembled President Joe Biden — worked the muscles in his calf. What a scene! Lee, who owns the most scintillating mustache in all of sports, shared the lead for a bit before kicking it away with bogeys at the last two holes. Still, it was a valiant effort for somebody who looked like he could barely walk late. 

He blamed the cramping to a lack of electrolytes, and it sounds like he’ll be OK for the next few rounds.

Speaking of Min Woo … His sister, Minjee, is ranked among the top five in the world on the women’s side. How insane is is that there are siblings in the top 50 in both men’s and women’s golf?! “Off the same tees, I will [beat her]. But when she plays off the ladies and I play off the men’s, it’s pretty close,” said Min Woo. “If we had a sprint, I think I would win, but she’s so consistent. So, I think over 100 rounds, I think she would beat me because I can hit it sideways and she doesn’t hit it off the fairway. Yeah, it’s pretty close, I think.”

5. Rory’s putting woes: We talked about the right miss McIlroy had going off the tee Thursday morning, but what really pushed him out of the tournament was an ice cold putter. He made just one putt longer than 4 feet on Thursday and finished close to last in this field in strokes gained putting. It was an issue on the West Coast where he lost seven strokes across two tournaments, and it was an even bigger issue on Thursday in the first round at TPC Sawgrass.

6. Fireworks at No. 17: We saw a little bit of everything on No. 17 in Round 1. The day started with a sick Hayden Buckley ace.

This resulted in the best way you can possibly describe an ace.

Then at the end of the day, Nick Watney four-putted for a quadruple bogey with three of those putts coming from inside 4 feet. One of them was a one-handed miss from 9 inches. No. 17 might be mildly overrated as a golf hole, but it always seems to deliver the drama.

7. Rough rough: Something several players mentioned Thursday was how penal the rough played. Driving the ball well is almost always a prerequisite to playing good golf at this championship, but that’s going to be especially true this time around, it seems.

“I feel like this is as penal as I’ve seen it out of the rough for a long time,” said McIlroy. “You would have to go back to when the tournament was played in May, when we were in Bermuda rough, for it to be as penal as that. Yeah, you don’t hit it on the fairway here, you’re going to struggle.”

Added Morikawa: “It’s just the way greens are angled out here and obviously where they put pins you can’t attack them. You’re just going to have no spin. So when the ball’s sitting down that much, I mean, you’re just trying to put it on the front edge and trying to make 4. So that’s why it’s just really important. I got lucky today; the ones I did miss, I was in the bunker or the pine straw or first cut. So, I got away with a few, which is really nice, and you kind of take that to your advantage.”

The greens baked out as the day rolled on (the afternoon wave was nearly a stroke harder than the morning), and Morikawa noted that he didn’t think any water was going to be applied to them throughout the rest of the week. This puts an even greater premium on finding fairways over the next few days.

8. Roller coaster and roller coaster-adjacent: The most entertaining group of the afternoon wave was the Justin Thomas-Jordan Spieth-Max Homa crew. Spieth got it going on the second nine with one of the filthiest shots of the day on No. 11, and J.T. got a taste of Spieth’s manic way of life (on the course). 

Thomas shot a 73 with two birdies and an eagle (which is certainly Spieth-like), and Spieth somehow came away as low man with a round of 3 under. He doesn’t traditionally play well at this golf course, and the his left miss means a 7 is always around the corner at Sawgrass, but his 69 on Thursday was a terrific score in the more difficult afternoon wave.

9. Quote of the day: “Golf never really feels easy, sadly. I wish it felt easier a little bit more often.” — Scottie Scheffler, who sits four back of the lead

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