PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Martin Kaymer used to worry about shots like this.
He stood on the tee at the par-5 second hole at the TPC Sawgrass, the wind slightly into him and to the right, the fairway bending slightly to the left. The tee shot requires a draw. Kaymer’s specialty is a fade.
“I just told myself, ‘You’ve done it many times before in Augusta.’ You need to draw certain shots,” Kaymer said. “That’s being brave. If you hit a bad shot? OK, it happens. But at least you tried the shot. And I pulled it off, and I had a good eagle chance. Through those shots you gain confidence.”
That’s about as much thought as he poured into a record round Thursday in The Players Championship.
The German in Kaymer strives for perfection. The golfer in Kaymer plays by feel. There was a clash between the ears as he tried to develop his game to hit a variety of shots, and the former PGA champion believes he is reaching the point where he can see the shot and hit the shot without worries.
It took him to a 9-under 63, with birdies on the last four holes, to build a two-shot lead in the opening round.
That tied the course record on the Stadium Course held by three other players — Roberto Castro last year, Greg Norman in 1994 and Fred Couples in 1992. And that final birdie, an up-and-down from the back bunker on the par-5 ninth, made him the first player to shoot 29 on either of the nines.
Russell Henley had a 65 in the morning, while Bae Sang-moon had a 66 in the afternoon. The long list of players at 67 — all in the morning — included Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth and U.S. Open champion Justin Rose.
Kaymer took advantage of a perfect day for scoring — warm weather, hardly any wind and soft greens.
There were 28 rounds in the 60s, which made the score by Adam Scott look even worse. With another chance — his best one yet — to get to No. 1 in the world for the first time, Scott finished with a pair of double bogeys from shots in the water and signed for a 77. It was his highest opening round at The Players since his first trip in 2002.
Phil Mickelson opened with a 75 and will need a low score Friday just to make the cut.
Kaymer wasn’t willing to look too far ahead.
“Only a quarter of the tournament happened today,” he said.
He has not won since the HSBC Champions in Shanghai at the end of 2011. He hasn’t had a top-10 all year. But the 29-year-old German has felt his swing start to come together in recent weeks. His name has been featured on leaderboards more and more.
And he had a simple explanation.
“I stopped thinking,” said Kaymer, a former world No. 1. “I thought a lot the last two years about swing changes … that every shot I made I reflect on it, what I did wrong, what I did right.”
A few weeks before the Masters, he spent time with longtime swing coach Gunter Kessler in Phoenix, and then they had another good session in Germany.
“And then it just clicked a little bit,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, I know I can hit pretty much every shot when I needed to hit it.’ If it’s a draw, if it’s a fade, low or high, I know that I can do it. It’s just a matter of getting the confidence on the golf course and then letting it happen and really doing it.”
Henley, who won the Honda Classic in a four-way playoff in March, made birdie on half of his holes to atone for one big mistake. He hooked a tee shot into the water on No. 7 and compounded that with a three-putt for double bogey. But he answered with six birdies on the back nine for a 65.
“I knew I was playing well and felt really comfortable on the greens,” Henley said. “But it was one of those back nines where you get to 18 and I just realized that I had a putt for 7 under. So that was pretty cool.”
Of the four players with a mathematical chance to reach No. 1, only Masters champion Bubba Watson broke 70. He had a 69, while Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar each had a 71. Only four players had a worse score than Scott.
Kaymer reached No. 1 three years ago, and then sought to change his swing because he could only hit a fade. He prefers to play by feel, not by mechanics. A swing change left him little choice but to think too much. Now, he can only hope it’s as simple as see the shot and hit the ball.
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