PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It almost seemed like the PGA Tour’s middle (and working) class had a reminder for its stars in the opening round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday.
The message: Hey, we’re not that bad either.
After the tour announced Tuesday that it will stage eight designated events with limited fields and no cuts starting in 2024, a plethora of players ranked outside the top 100 in the world were near the top of the leaderboard at the tour’s flagship event.
Chad Ramey, who is ranked No. 225 in the world, carded an 8-under 64 to grab the first-round lead at the Stadium Course. Canada’s Taylor Pendrith, No. 114 in the world, is 3 shots back, along with Ben Griffin and Justin Suh, who are Nos. 78 and 102 in the Official World Golf Ranking, respectively.
Suh had three holes left to go on Thursday when play was suspended at 6:28 p.m. ET because of darkness.
Two years ago, Griffin was financing residential mortgages as a loan officer at a bank. The former North Carolina star was asked if he could have imagined competing in the Players back then.
What a flop shot from @BenGriffinGolf 👏
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 9, 2023
“No, but I could imagine a homeowner going under contract and we had to finance a loan,” Griffin said. “That’s about it. Two years ago I was working a desk job almost, so it’s just a dream come true to be playing on the PGA Tour. Very blessed to have the sponsors that I do, to have helped me get back to where I am. Yeah, to make a push like this is just awesome.”
Some of the game’s biggest names are going to have to make a big push on Friday to stick around for the final two rounds. Reigning FedEx Cup winner Rory McIlroy and defending U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick each carded a 4-over 76 and were 12 shots behind Ramey. Justin Thomas and Tony Finau were 1 over, while Tom Kim, Hideki Matsuyama and Will Zalatoris were 2 over.
They’re all chasing Ramey with 54 holes to play.
“It gives me the confidence, and deep down I believe I belong out here,” Ramey said. “I believe I can beat them. It’s just a matter of I guess proving to everybody else that I can.”
The battle for No. 1
The three players who have been No. 1 in the OWGR for the past month — Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy — were paired together in a marquee group on Thursday morning, and Scheffler came out on top after 18 holes. It took him a while to get going as well.
Scheffler, ranked No. 2 in the world behind Rahm, carded a 4-under 68. After shooting even par on the back nine, his first nine holes of the round, Scheffler had five birdies and one bogey on the front nine. Scheffler hit 10 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens.
“The rough was very thick,” Scheffler said. “I think it’s not crazy, crazy long. I’m sure we’ll see longer stuff at maybe the U.S. Open. It may have even been longer last week, but this week I would say is as healthy as I’ve seen. You have a little bit of Bermuda in there, and then with the overseed, it’s extremely thick.”
Rahm was also pretty accurate off the tee, hitting nine of 14 fairways, and did a good job of staying out of the rough. But he couldn’t get anything going on the green and posted a 1-under 71. He lost more than 2 strokes to the field in putting. Rahm said he didn’t give himself many chances. He had a putt lip out on the final hole.
“Well, it felt like a slap in the face on a day that I hit a lot of putts and just kept burning edges to one that looked like it was going in,” Rahm said. “It’s just what it is; it’s golf. The only thing I could say is that I hit a lot of quality putts out there. The only thing I will be thinking on today is a couple wedge shots, about three or four of them out there, that not only didn’t I hit them close, some of them I missed the green completely.”
McIlroy posted a double bogey on the 10th hole and his round never got much better. He had two birdies with four bogeys the rest of the way. He hit only six of 14 fairways and 10 of 18 greens. McIlroy needed 31 putts and lost more than 2½ strokes on the greens. He didn’t make a putt longer than 4 feet.
It was McIlroy’s highest opening-round score in an event since he posted a 4-over 76 at the 2021 Masters. The four-time major champion is a combined 11 over in seven rounds at TPC Sawgrass since winning the 2019 Players.
McIlroy was erratic off the tee. He started using a new driver at the Genesis last month. The driver McIlroy played with last year, which he liked, has been used too much.
“These driver heads are so finicky, it’s hard to get one exactly the same,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, I mean, I’m obviously trying my best, trying to get something that’s as close to what I had last year. Yeah, just struggled a little bit off the tee the last couple weeks.
“This one is as close as it’s been. It’s quite a lot of user error in there, as well.”
The trio will start their second round on the No. 1 hole at 12:56 p.m. ET on Friday (ESPN+).
A Cinderella story?
If Ramey didn’t catch up on lost sleep the past few days after his wife, Kelly, delivered their first child last week, it might get more difficult if he keeps playing as well as he did in Thursday’s opening round.
Ramey, who’s No. 174 in FedEx Cup points, grabbed the first-round lead with an 8-under 64. It was the former Mississippi State star’s first start at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. In fact, he had never stepped on the property before Monday. He had four birdies on both the front and back and didn’t card a bogey in 18 holes.
“Not easy at all,” Ramey said. “I might have made it look that way but it wasn’t easy at all. It was fun, [the] first time to shoot a score on such an iconic course like this. You can’t ask for any more.”
Ramey’s hot start was completely unexpected. After winning the Corales Puntacana Championship in the Dominican Republic in March 2022, he had largely struggled this season. He missed the cut in nine of his past 14 starts, including three straight coming into this week.
“The game has felt really close,” Ramey said. “I know the scores haven’t shown it, but it’s felt really close.”
Playing the iconic par-3 17th hole on Thursday, Ramey knocked his tee shot really close — to about 2 feet — for an easy birdie.
Ramey, 30, said he has been connecting with his wife and newborn son, Nolan, on Facetime about three or four times a day. He didn’t talk to them before Thursday’s round.
“Obviously, golf is a lot less important now, and you never know, maybe that’s why I played better today,” Ramey said. “It’s a lot less important now that I have a child, and hate I’m not there with him, but just glad to be here and to at least play well.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, there has been only one Players champion since 1987 who was ranked outside the top 100 in the OWGR: Craig Perks in 2002 (199th). The next-lowest winner was Si Woo Kim (75th) in 2017.
Ramey wasn’t the only first-timer at the Players who made some noise on Thursday. Australia’s Min Woo Lee carded a 4-under 68 in his first start at the Stadium Course. Lee, who has won twice on the DP World Tour, is making only his 19th start on the PGA Tour.
Lee, ranked No. 50 in the world, was 6 under after 13 holes before posting bogeys on three of his last five holes. His right calf started cramping after his tee shot on the 15th hole, and he needed assistance from a PGA Tour medical official to finish his round. Lee said he believed he suffered an allergic reaction to electrolytes he was using earlier in the week, then cramped up after he stopped using them.
“The calf was a random thing, just out of nowhere,” Lee said. “I don’t want to show you my face when it was a few days ago, but it was swollen, and it was bad and lots of red. It wasn’t ideal. It got to the point where I came here on Sunday, and I couldn’t even go out on the course because my eyes were half shut.”
“Oh my god I just got a cramp.”
Leader Min Woo Lee is playing through pain on his back nine in Round 1. pic.twitter.com/EWeofKKz7g
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 9, 2023
Lee’s older sister, Minjee Lee, is the reigning U.S. Women’s Open winner and a two-time major champion.
“Off the same tees, I will [win],” Lee said. “But when she plays off the ladies and I play off the men’s, it’s pretty close. If we had a sprint, I think I would win, but she’s so consistent. So, I think over 100 rounds, I think she would beat me because I can hit it sideways, and she doesn’t hit it off the fairway. Yeah, it’s pretty close, I think.”