PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The first round of The Players Championship on Thursday, with weather too good for North Florida postcards, was still a difficult test at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
Play was suspended because of darkness at 6:32 p.m., and the first-round scoring average (73.802) is on track to be the highest since 2007.
The defending champion finished one shot away from posting an 80.
All of this makes Sergio Garcia's 7-under-par 65 to take a two-shot lead over Brian Harman of St. Simons Island, Ga., that much more remarkable.
The 2008 Players champion and the all-time leader in earnings in the PGA Tour's gold standard event, played his last three holes at 4-under, including his second eagle of the day, and matched his career-low round in the tournament in his 21st start at the Stadium Course.
A firm golf course and higher-than-normal winds greeted the morning groups, and Garcia was ready for difficult conditions.
"I expected the greens to be a little bit firmer ... [and] it was tricky to control the spin because of the combination of being soft and very fast," he said. "So it kind of caught us a couple of times here and there ... but I was able to manage it nicely towards the end."
He wasn't kidding. Garcia went birdie-birdie-eagle on one of the most difficult three-hole stretches on the golf course and made one of only three eagles at No. 9.
Harman shot 5-under 31 on his back nine to post the best score of the afternoon groups at 5-under 67. Matthew Fitzpatrick, Corey Conners and 2019 Open champion Shane Lowry are at 4-under 68 and last week's winner at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Bryson DeChambeau, birdied his last two holes to join the man he beat by one shot at Bay Hill, Lee Westwood, Rory Sabbatini, Denny McCarthy and Tom Hoge at 3-under.
DeChambeau showed no signs of Pete Dye's tricky design, which often takes drivers out of the hands of the big hitters, hindering him.
DeChambeau hit driver on nine holes and he even hinted that the ultimate bomber on the PGA Tour right now will be at home with the ultimate golf chessboard.
"For the most part, it's position golf ... I love position golf," he said.
But if he stays in contention, he'll have to contend with the Grandmasters of the Stadium Course. Garcia, who is making his 21st career start in The Players, won it in 2008 in a playoff against Paul Goydos and has five other top-10 finishes. His tie for 22nd in 2019 gave him career earnings of $5.4 million.
Garcia parred his first five holes, then birdied No. 15 on a 16-foot putt and eagled No. 16 on a 10-foot putt.
He turned and made his only bogey of the day at No. 1, but got it back at the par-5 second with a tap-in for birdie.
Garcia then made his final move on the closing holes of the front nine.
He drained a 16-footer for birdie at the par-4 seventh, knocked in an 18-footer at the par-3 eighth (after a tee shot of 226 yards) and reached the middle of the green at the par-5 ninth in two shots, and holed another 18-foot putt to cap his round.
Garcia said the Stadium Course and Valderrama, in his home country of Spain, remain two of his favorite worldwide.
It all comes down to putting a tee in the ground, looking up, and liking what he sees.
"I just love it," he said of the Stadium. "I've always said it, Valderrama and this course are some of my top favorite ones and for some reason ... just kind of fits my eye. I see what I want to do pretty much every hole and then it's a matter of doing it, but it definitely I feel more comfortable and I've done well. So all those things help."
Fitzpatrick, of England, also eagled No. 9 on the way to his career-low Players round, and Conners, a Canadian who contended last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, eagled the par-4 14th hole and matched his best round ever at the Stadium.
But the day was a disaster for other players.
Henrik Stenson, the 2009 Players champion, shot 85 with two triple-bogeys.
Kevin Na hit three balls into the water at No. 17, finally got his seventh shot on the green, chipped in for an 8, bogeyed No. 18 for an 81, and withdrew.
Byeong Hun An made the second-highest score at No. 17 in the history of the tournament with an 11, hitting his first four shots into the water.
Kyle Stanley, who was the 54-hole co-leader at the 2017 Players, had three double-bogeys for an 83.
And defending champion Rory McIlroy double-bogeyed his first hole (the par-4 10th) hit into the water twice at No. 18 and took a quadruple-bogey 8, then had three birdies, three bogeys and two pars on his front nine. He bogeyed his last for a 79, his career-worst at the Stadium Course by three shots.
McIlroy was asked an obvious question: how hard will it be to recover from his start?
"Very hard, especially when you're trying to figure it out as you go along on course, right?" he said. "You're trying to figure it out but you still know you're not really sure where the shots are coming from. Obviously, the big number on 18 didn't help and then doubling the first wasn't helpful either. So yeah, I just think just it's hard to recover when you just haven't played good."