He may have been playing his first official round at THE PLAYERS Championship but Mackenzie Hughes proved the stage was not too big for him.
The Dundas, Ontario native, already a winner on the PGA TOUR this season, played a clean opening round of 67 over the daunting TPC Sawgrass layout to earn a share of the overnight lead with William McGirt.
Although a surprise to some, it did not feel that way for the Canadian who mixed together a combination of confidence and game management to earn his -5 score.
“Yeah, it was very solid, but yeah, to go bogey-free around this place, very difficult to do, obviously, and I started the day, I wouldn’t have expected a round like that, but I knew my game was trending,” Hughes shared after the round. “I had some good results last week, and yeah, it was just one of those days. It wasn’t perfect golf, but I managed it really well and made a few nice saves when I needed to and made a few nice putts, so it was good, a good day.”
Having missed three cuts in his last four starts, Hughes says he regained his form with the help of one big thing – patience.
“I was getting a little frustrated, a little down on myself, and last week was a big step in the right direction, just trying to make a little mental adjustment and just be a tad more patient, a little more forgiving or accepting of the misses. It paid off last week and still paying off again right now.”
Hughes will need to remain tolerant over the next three rounds as he makes his way around Pete Dye’s most notable design puzzle. It’s been known to confound even seasoned pros and the pressure only tightens on the field as they pursue one of the biggest titles in golf. A win earns a player $1.89 million and a five-year exemption for the PGA TOUR. It also throws in 80 world ranking points and three-year exemptions to The Masters, Open Championship and U.S. Open.
It’s big, and everyone knows it.
The closest Hughes came to a scar on his card on Thursday played out on the eighteenth hole where his drive leaked right. That left him with a long approach where he needed to thread a tree line to reach the green. He successfully navigated it and converted his par.
While be may have made the course look easy, Hughes is remaining cautious about what TPC Sawgrass still has left to throw at him. He conveyed that when asked what he had learned about the famed course over one official round and 36 holes of practice.
“It’s very hard, for one,” he remarked. “And I think that there’s just not really a moment where you can let up. It’s so subtle, so tricky. There’s so many shots in my group today where they looked like close to being perfect and then they’d just kind of roll off the green at the last-minute. You’re in these little collection areas and you’ve got tough chips and tough putts up these hills. It’s just totally like point A to point B for me, I think. It doesn’t matter — you can lay it back 30, 40 yards further, but as long as you’re in the fairway, you’ve got a chance. You know, playing from the wrong side of these holes, they get bad angles, and you’re in the rough, it can get really, really hard out here and you can be scrambling a lot. Putting it in the fairway is probably first and foremost, and then you’ve got to chip and putt really well around here.”
Prepared For More
That said, he is ready for the challenge that awaits him.
“Today was a great day, but I’m sure there’s spots on the golf course that I’m unfamiliar with still and so we’ll just try and keep it in the short grass the next few days and see what happens.”
At the same time he’ll lean on the valuable experience that he gained from his win at the RSM Classic in the Fall.
“I know this is a bigger stage — but I got out to the lead there and I told myself, once I got in that position that there was lots of golf left to be played, but I knew I could be in that position. And I just stayed within myself and just stuck to what I’ve been doing.”
He added, “It’s one of those days where I kept it out of trouble. I didn’t hit every fairway, every green, but I missed in the right spots, and when I needed to make a par putt I did. It was a fun day.”
Two of Hughes’ fellow Canadians also had a good start to the week in Ponte Vedra.
David Hearn posted 70 (-2) to share 18th place overnight while Adam Hadwin is one back of that and shares 32nd.
Graham DeLaet will have some work to do after an opening 74. He shares 83rd and will need to be in the top 70 and ties for make the weekend.