Ponte Vedra Beach - Rory McIlroy tees it up in the US PGA Tour's flagship Players Championship brimming with confidence but also sporting a series of cuts on his boyish 25-year-old face.
McIlroy had a close encounter on Tuesday with bushes while playing a social round with his close friends Mitchell Tweedy and Ricky McCormick at the exclusive Bears Club.
The double Major winner, who has cuts on his lip and the right side of his face, had raised eyebrows in deciding not to play a practice round at TPC Sawgrass and opted not to do a formal pre-event media conference.
However he surprised officials on Wednesday afternoon by playing the back nine with Tweedy and McCormick as on-course company.
McIlroy is returning to competition after finishing with a share of eighth place in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow last week, his seventh top-10 finish in 10 events this year.
"I took Monday off after my birthday and the Wells Fargo on Sunday and then did a good day's work on Tuesday at the Bears Club," McIlroy told AFP.
"And apart from getting these scratches and looking for a golf ball that wasn't mine, I feel I didn't need to rush up here to Sawgrass given there is no Pro-Am at the event.
"I had all intentions of then flying up here at 5 pm yesterday (Tuesday), but I thought it would be nice to spend another night in my own bed."
McIlroy will tee it up on Sawgrass's Stadium course with the added confidence of sharing eighth here a year ago, and after missing the halfway cut in the three prior years.
"I finally figured out last year how to play this golf course and not let it frustrate me," said McIlroy, who added that the course is playing softer than he had ever experienced it.
He also said concerns over poor spots on the 11th and 12th greens seem overblown.
"I putted over them today and it's no big deal, and they look worse than they actually are," McIlroy said.
"I heard John Rollins say that for $10m that he'd putt over muddy greens and I totally agree."