Sports Wyndham Clark sets a big target at The Players Championship. Scheffler coping with pain in his neck

Rory McIlroy shoots a 65 with 2 tee shots in the water and 1 uncomfortable dispute

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida: Rory McIlroy began The Players Championship with a 65 on his scorecard, two tee shots that went into the water and one lengthy dispute about where to take a penalty drop on Thursday.

McIlroy ended the day with 10 birdies for his lowest start ever at the TPC Sawgrass, leaving him tied with Xander Schauffele and US Open champion Wyndham Clark. He would love to have back the tee shots on the 18th and the seventh holes, both of which found water and slowed his momentum on an otherwise superb display of golf.

It was the drop on No. 7 that caused so much conversation with Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland, and some confusion on where he should drop.

“I think Jordan was just trying to make sure that I was doing the right thing,” McIlroy said. “I was pretty sure that my ball had crossed where I was sort of dropping it. It’s so hard, right? Because there was no TV evidence. I was adamant. But I think, again, he was just trying to make sure that I was going to do the right thing.”

McIlroy was 8 under for the day playing the par-4 seventh — his 16th hole of the round — when he pulled his tee shot. The land slopes toward a large pond, meaning the only gallery is on the opposite side of the fairway. Television replays saw the ball bounce, but not where.

The question became was it above or below the red hazard line. Had it landed above, McIlroy would take a one-shot penalty and drop it near were it crossed the line into the water. But if it were below the line — closer to the water — he would have had to take his penalty and drop back by the tee box on the 452-yard hole.

McIlroy had already taken his drop when his playing partners had questions. Spieth was heard to say, “We don’t know for sure that it crossed the line.”

“I’m pretty comfortable I saw it above the red line,” McIlroy said.

At one point it appeared to get testy between Spieth, McIlroy and caddie Harry Diamond.

“Everyone that I’m hearing had eyes on it is … saying they were 100 percent certain it landed below the line,” Spieth said.

“Who’s everybody, Jordan?” Diamond said.

“Who are you talking about?” McIlroy added.

Spieth said all that mattered was what McIlroy thought.

A rules official arrived but was of little use without having seen the shots, and with the camera angle unable to capture exactly where the ball landed.

“I think my ball bounced above the red line, but it’s not definitive,” McIlroy told the official. “I’m pretty comfortable it did. We’re trying to check with TV and they can’t say.”

This went on so long that it took some 30 minutes to complete the hole. McIlroy said he was trying to take the drop in the most conservative spot. Eventually, he came up short of the green with his third shot, ran it 10 feet by the hole and missed the putt to take double bogey.

Hovland, who was involved in a similar tense dispute involving Daniel Berger at The Players two years ago, declined to comment, and Spieth bolted into the clubhouse after the round.

“I think at the end of the day we’re all trying to protect ourselves, protect the field, as well,” McIlroy said after his round. “I wouldn’t say it (the debate with Spieth) was needless. I think he was just trying to make sure that what happened was the right thing.”

Adding to the attention was their place outside the ropes. McIlroy resigned from the PGA Tour policy board in November, and Spieth was chosen to finish his term as the tour was trying to negotiate investment deals with private equity and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

McIlroy and Spieth also were at odds last month at Pebble Beach on whether the PGA Tour needed a deal with the Public Investment Fund.

They also disagree on whether LIV Golf players should be punished if they ever came back to the PGA Tour. McIlroy doesn’t think they should.

There also was an inquiry into McIlroy’s tee shot on the 18th. He dropped at the start of the fairway, not by the tee box, and managed to hit 3-wood to the front of the green and escape with a bogey.

“Again, adamant it crossed (land), it’s just a matter of where it crosses. I think this golf course more than any other, it sort of produces those situations a little bit,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I’m one of the most conscientious golfers out here, so if I feel like I’ve done something wrong, it’ll play on my conscience for the rest of the tournament.

“I’m a big believer in karma, and if you do something wrong, I feel like it’s going to come around and bite you at some point,” he said. “I obviously don’t try to do anything wrong out there, and play by the rules and do the right thing. I feel like I obviously did that those two drops.”

Lost in all this drama was a 65. It was a remarkable round considering his two tee shots.

“It would be nice to shoot 62 and not have two in the water, I guess,” McIlroy said.

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