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McIlroy starts fast as Woods eases into position

ESPN staff
May 9, 2013 « Live County Championship coverage | Chartbeat test »
The 17th was among Rory McIlroy's many birdies on Thursday © Getty Images
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The Players Championship leaderboard

Rory McIlroy looks on track to make his first cut in four appearances at the Players Championship, after firing a six-under par round of 66 on Thursday.

McIlroy - who has opted not to play the event in past years, such has been his distaste for the TPC Sawgrass layout - made the most of calm morning conditions to shoot his first-ever under par round at the course, which included six birdies and no bogeys.

"When you hit the shots, it seems very simple," McIlroy said. "I had a lot of good shots out there, lot of iron shots that were 12, 15 feet away from the pin and I got myself a lot of looks for birdies."

That left him near the top of the leaderboard, just three shots off surprise pace-setter Roberto Castro - who joined Fred Couples and Greg Norman as joint course record holder at Sawgrass after a nine-under 63.

Tiger Woods, thanks to a bogey at the last, is just one behind McIlroy at five-under.

McIlroy briefly looked on course to attain similar heights to Castro during his round, but a par-laden finish eventually forced him to settle three shots back of his benchmark. Starting on the tenth, the Northern Irishman notched five birdies in a stretch of seven holes prior to the turn - the last of them coming thanks to a six-foot putt at the island green 17th.

The front nine would not prove so charitable, however, with a regulation birdie at the par-five second the only further shot against par he would pick up.

"It was benign out there," McIlroy noted afterwards. "There wasn't much wind. It was perfect conditions for scoring and I was able to take advantage of those."

That ultimately left him level with Zach Johnson, and one shot ahead of both Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan.

One shot behind, Woods was left to rue a duffed chip at the 18th - a mistake that cost him a bogey after two fine shots to start the hole. Prior to that the world No. 1 had been impressive, birdieing four holes in succession after the turn to propel himself up the leaderboard.

Making his first tournament appearance since winning the Masters, Adam Scott - a past winner in this event - made an understated start.

The Australian, victorious here in 2004, was two-under after just three holes - but his pace slowed considerably after that, with a bogey at the first (his tenth) halting his momentum. But he picked up shots at the second and fifth to eventually sign for a steady opening score of 69.

"It was ideal," Scott said of conditions. "There wasn't a breath of wind hardly the front nine. The greens seemed pretty receptive too, so if you were in the fairway you could attack."

It is Castro they are all chasing, however. The American, also having begun his day on the 10th, reached the turn at five-under - before a magnificent eagle at the second gave a glimpse of what was to come. Further birdies at the fourth and sixth had him needing to pick up just one more shot to claim the course record outright - but his 14-foot putt at the last ran narrowly past the hole.

"It was a fun day," Castro said afterwards. "It's just nice to see the results sometimes. [It's] nice to have 18 holes that I showed what I've been working on."

Elsewhere, Sergio Garcia finished the first day four-under par, with Lee Westwood one shot behind. Luke Donald and Justin Rose were both level par.

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