When it comes to mastering the Stadium Course, it seems that unfamiliarity can breed contentment. While Rory McIlroy was huffing and puffing his way to a stuttering, spluttering 76 on day one of The Players Championship in his 13th appearance at the PGA Tour’s flagship event, Sawgrass debutant Chad Ramey zipped round in 64 blows to set a sprightly early pace at eight-under.

In stark contrast to McIlroy’s score that was strewn with various bits of debris, Ramey handed in a card that was so polished it could’ve been buffed up with a lint free cloth. There were eight birdies, no bogeys and almost a hole-in-one on the iconic par-17th. For man who had never played this particular stretch of golfing terrain prior to his first practice round on Monday, it was a mighty effort.

This flummoxing old game is never easy but Ramey certainly made it look like a walk in the park. Looks, of course, can be deceptive. “No, not easy, not easy at all,’’ he said of his delightfully assembled round which almost had the ultimate high when his pitching wedge to the 17th landed within inches of the hole. “But it was fun to shoot a score like this on such an iconic course. You can’t ask for any more.”

While the spotlight was all on the marquee group of McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler and the jockeying for the world No.1 spot, it was Ramey, the world No.225, who upstaged the star attractions. “Deep down I believe I belong out here,” he said with a quiet sense of purpose. “I believe I can beat them. It’s just a matter of proving to everybody else that I can.

A winner on the PGA Tour last season, the 30-year-old became a dad to a baby boy, Nolan, the other week. “Obviously, golf is a lot less important now,” he reasoned. “And you never know, maybe that’s why I played better today. I hate that I’m not there with him, but happy that I played well.” If faither comes home with the vast Players Championship bounty, we’re sure young Nolan will forgive him for his absence.

As for McIlroy? Well, the 2019 champion must have been tempted to hurl the toys out of the pram after a trying day. The 33-year-old has been hugely instrumental in pushing through the new multi-million dollar changes to the PGA Tour which will see a series of lavish, no-cut showpieces on the schedule next year. Here at Sawgrass, he’s now facing a battle to make the ruddy cut.

His opening 76 started poorly with a double-bogey on his first hole – the 10th – and it didn’t get much better. Even the odd moment of magic was followed by sighing anti-climax. When he hoiked his drive right on the par-five 16th, McIlroy, against fairly dire odds, conjured a recovery shot of wonderfully bold invention and gave himself the chance of an eagle. The subsequent three-putt for a disappointing par summed up his day.

McIlroy’s driving, usually one of the strongest weapons in his armoury, was all over the parish yesterday and that was largely due to a new driver that is still bedding in. He had to sideline his trusty old stick recently after fearing it may not pass complex ‘trampoline effect’ testing regulations. He found just six of a possible 14 fairways in a round that was his worst competitive score since the first round of the Masters in 2021. “It’s very penal when you don’t hit fairways and I just didn’t hit a lot of fairways today,” McIlroy said in a simple summing up of affairs. “The three-putt on 16 was probably the one that sort of stopped any momentum.”

Rahm, the current world No 1 who has won five of his last 10 events, opened his latest title bid with a one-under 71 while Scheffler, the reigning Masters champion, finished with a flourish and birdied three of his last four holes in a 68. “I’m proud of how I finished,” he said. “I just kept plodding along and fortunately I saw some putts go in.”

Collin Morikawa, the former Open champion, made the most of the benign early morning conditions and packed five birdies and an eagle into a seven-under 65 to lurk just a shot behind surprise package Ramey.