Rory McIlroy produced a spirited finish after enduring a “rusty” opening day of The Players Championship, and he revealed a back problem had contributed to his erratic play.
The world No 2 arrived at TPC Sawgrass for his first event since the Masters with a bag full of new clubs, but he was clearly short of his best as he struggled to a one-over 73 to lie six shots off the lead.
The damage was done on the back nine as he made double-bogeys at the 10th and the 14th, but he bounced back with two birdies over the last three holes to give himself momentum heading into the second round.
McIlroy got off to an uncertain start as he three-putted the opening green from 35 feet, although he got the shot back immediately with a confident sand save at the long second.
He did well to scramble pars at the fifth and sixth, but he could not escape a bogey at the next after pulling his tee shot into the fairway bunker and blocking his second into the right rough.
The newlywed got back to level par with a birdie putt from 10 feet at the ninth, but he suffered a huge lapse in concentration after the turn when, after missing for par, he attempted a casual tap-in from inside three feet and his ball slid past the hole.
McIlroy regained his composure to roll in the return from double the distance, and his aggressive tactics at the driveable, new 12th hole paid off when he nailed a good 14-foot putt for a three.
But he stumbled to another double-bogey at the 14th, where he pulled his drive way left into the water hazard and eventually did well to limit the damage to a six after finding sand twice with his second ball.
The 28-year-old flirted with the trees to the left of the 16th fairway, but he managed to gouge his second close to the green and got down in two for a welcome fourth birdie of the day.
McIlroy shaved the hole for another at 17, but he lifted his spirits with a rare birdie at the last as he holed his best putt of the round from just inside 35 feet.
“I was a little rusty out there, but I feel like I turned a 75 or a 76 into a 73, so it wasn’t all bad,” he said. “I didn’t hit enough fairways, didn’t hit enough greens and felt like I was scrambling all day. But I scrambled pretty well, and I birdied two of the last three holes to make it somewhat respectable.
“What happened on the 10th was just a loss of concentration. I went to tap one in, and it came straight left off the putter, and thought to myself, I’d better mark the next one. It was definitely a cheap shot given away.
“Hopefully I can hit it on the fairway a bit more tomorrow and give myself a few chances from there,” added McIlroy, who revealed he had played only nine holes of practice after aggravating a back problem.
“I only played nine holes here and I’ve been very limited hitting golf balls,” he said. “My back has got a little bit stiff again, I guess just from obviously building it up and playing through and then not doing anything for three weeks and then coming back last weekend and hitting balls for four or five hours a day.
“I just aggravated that joint in my back again, the thing that sort of happened at the start of the season. I’ve been trying to rest that and manage that, so I think that’s why I’m a little bit rusty, as well. But I think this week it’s just about trying to manage that and get through the week and try to play with what I have.”