Rory McIlroy had to take a penalty shot after hooking drive on the 10th into the undergrowth

Players Championship
Date: 11-14 March Venue: Stadium Course, Sawgrass, Florida
Coverage: BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra commentary – Saturday: 21:00 GMT and Sunday: 20:00. Live text commentary of final two rounds on BBC Sport website from 19:00, with in-play highlights
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Rory McIlroy made a disappointing start to the defence of his title at the Players Championship as he slumped to a seven-over 79 at TPC Sawgrass.

Starting on the back nine, the Northern Irishman’s round included a quadruple-bogey eight after finding the water twice at the 18th.

Spain’s Sergio Garcia holds the early clubhouse lead, with an eagle on his final hole moving him to seven under.

Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson are among the late starters in Florida.

Rory’s nightmare start

McIlroy is the defending champion after winning the Players Championship two years ago, with the 2020 tournament cancelled prior to the second round because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He made an awful start when hooked his drive on the 10th into the undergrowth and had to take a penalty drop on his way to a double-bogey six.

McIlroy also three-putted the par-three 13th before hitting two balls into the water at the 18th, with another three-putt resulting in a quadruple-bogey eight that left him seven over par and 10 shots off the early lead.

A birdie from nine feet on the first hole saw McIlroy began to repair some of the damage, and he made another on the next, despite again hitting a poor drive, but bogeys on the next two holes dropped him back to seven over.

He clawed one shot back at the fifth but another three-putt on the ninth saw him sign for a 79, equalling the highest opening round of a defending champion set by Sandy Lyle in 1988.

Sergio shines at Sawgrass

McIlroy’s struggles were in sharp contrast to his playing partner Garcia.

The 2008 champion made an eagle on the par-five 16th, birdied the seventh and eighth before holing from 18 feet for a closing eagle to complete a superb opening round of 65 – his lowest opening round at the Players Championship.

England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick is three shots behind Garcia alongside Canadian Corey Conners after carding an opening round 68, which included four birdies and a chip-in eagle on the par-five ninth.

Compatriot Lee Westwood, runner-up to DeChambeau at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, is also among the early pacesetters on three under alongside American Tom Hoge.

“I built up a lot of confidence last week, putted nicely, made good par saves when I needed to and that’s what you need in these kind of tournaments where three under is a good score,” said Westwood.

“I could see going out this morning that nobody was going to burn it up, you were going to have play conservatively sometimes, smart golf, and that’s what I tried to do.”

Justin Rose withdrew from the tournament hours before his tee-time and was replaced by US Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker.

The former world number one cited “personal medical reasons” for his withdrawal, though he pulled out mid-round from the Arnold Palmer Invitational last weekend because of a back injury.