PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy had their best starts ever in the Players Championship on Thursday. Those starts still weren't enough to catch Roberto Castro, who had never played TPC Sawgrass and made a debut he won't soon forget.
Castro hit shots into tap-in range on the famed 17th and 18th holes on his way to 9-under 63 in perfect scoring conditions in the morning. He tied the course record held by Fred Couples and Greg Norman, and the score gave him a three-shot lead — the largest 18-hole margin in 21 years at Sawgrass — over McIlroy and Zach Johnson.
"I hit it close a lot," Castro said.
Woods had to work a little harder in the afternoon, when a breeze arrived and the sun began to make the greens firm. Even so, he was on the cusp of his first bogey-free round in his 16 years at the Players until his 8-iron from 200 yards on 18 went just over the green and he flubbed his chip.
The bogey gave him 67, the first time he broke 70 in the opening round at Sawgrass.
"It was a day that I felt I had to shoot something in the 60s," Woods said. "Most of the guys were under par in the morning session."
Half the players who played early broke par, a rarity at this tournament.
McIlroy also played in the morning, in a group with Masters champion Adam Scott (69) and Steve Stricker (67).
McIlroy had not broken par — or made the cut — in three previous appearances at the Players, but he figured it out by dialing it back off the tee and letting his iron play take over. McIlroy never came seriously close to a bogey, and he didn't hit driver once on the front nine.
"When you hit the shots, it seems very simple," McIlroy said. "I had a lot of good shots out there, lot of iron shots that were 12, 15 feet away from the pin, and I got myself a lot of looks for birdies. I adopted maybe more of a conservative strategy off the tee this year. But once you put your ball in the fairway, that means you can be more aggressive into the greens. So it sort of balances itself out."
Castro, 27, is not well known even in golf circles. His mother grew up in Peru and moved to the United States as a teenager along with her sister, Jenny Lidback, who played on the LPGA Tour. He toiled in the minor leagues for five years after getting an industrial engineering degree at Georgia Tech in 2007. His best finish on the PGA Tour is tied for 16th at this year's Phoenix Open.
Playing partner Jason Bohn (68) said Castro put on "a clinic."
"It was beautiful. I've never seen a 63 shot like that," Bohn said. "You see guys chip-in or hole a bunker shot. He shot 63. … That was the highest score he could have shot."
After his eagle on the second hole — his 11th of the round — Castro was reminded of a game he plays to try to birdie every other hole.
"When I eagled, I was like, 'Oh, now I'm 7 (under) through 11, so that's keeping ahead of that 50 percent mark.' But this is a different golf course," he said. "The golf course is much harder than most of the other times I've kind of taken that attitude."
Vijay Singh (74), playing one day after suing the tour for its handling of his deer antler spray doping case, was largely ignored while playing in the group behind Woods. One person wore felt deer antlers in the bleachers behind the first tee, but only a dozen or so people followed Singh quietly on the back nine.
Players Championship leaderboard
Ryan Palmer 67 -5
Webb Simpson 67 -5
TV today: 1, Golf Channel
Weather: High 84, 10 percent chance of thunderstorms