Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler struggle at TPC Sawgrass

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The pre-tournament banter turned out to be the best part of the Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler grouping at the Players Championship on Thursday.

The actual golf? Not so great.

Woods led the way with an even-par 72 that included a rinsed tee shot at the 18th hole and a 10-foot bogey-saving putt. Fowler had a 74 and Mickelson -- who played in the long-sleeved shirt he debuted during a Masters practice round -- played the last five holes in 7 over par to shoot 79.

And when you consider that leaders Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Alex Noren, Chesson Hadley, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Cantlay each shot 6-under-par 66 -- with a total of 68 players under par -- the collective efforts of the threesome were disappointing.

"It's a lot more fun when you can get the three guys firing and trying to top each other,'' Fowler said. "There were times where we kind of got that going. Tiger hit it in there close at (the par-5) 9 and made eagle; I was able to make birdie. I kind of thought that was going to lead into something on the back. It didn't work out that way.''

Woods had the best chance at a decent round, getting to even par after two early bogeys with an 18-foot eagle putt after a 245-yard shot from the fairway to the back fringe. And when he added a birdie at the short par-4 12th, he was under par for the first time.

But Woods missed a shot par putt at the 15th, made a birdie at the 16th, then hit his tee shot in the water at 18 to let go of a decent score.

"I've got to drive it a little bit better than I did today and obviously hit the ball closer,'' said Woods, who hit just 5 of 15 fairways and 11 of 18 greens. "Starting to putt good again and get on greens that I know, and I just need to get the ball a little bit closer and a little bit faster than I did today.''

Woods was coming off a shaky performance at the Wells Fargo Championship, where he struggled on the greens, didn't make a birdie during the final round on Sunday and tied for 55th.

On Sunday, the PGA Tour announced the marquee grouping of Woods, Mickelson and Fowler -- a rare Woods-Mickelson matchup in the early rounds of a tournament. This was just the 10th time in their PGA Tour careers that they played in the first round together and the first time since the 2014 PGA Championship. The only time they played together at the Players was in 2001 during the third round, when Woods shot 66 to Mickelson's 72 on his way to winning the tournament.

Both players seemed to embrace the grouping, with Mickelson suggesting they skip "all the ancillary stuff of a tournament and just go head-to-head and have kind of a high-stake, winner-take-all match.''

Woods said he welcomed the idea, suggesting they play for whatever "makes him uncomfortable.''

As it turned out, had they played a true match-play format, Woods would have closed out Mickelson with a 2-and-1 victory at the 17th -- where Mickelson's tee shot found the water.

"I knew this was going to be an issue,'' Mickelson said. "I said it Sunday at Wells Fargo (where he tied for fifth), I was worried about energy this week. And I just kind of ran out at the end.

"I had a lot of fun, enjoying being with the guys. I just had a poor finish, 7 over the last five. That's the day.''

If it makes the trio feel any better, the other marquee group of Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth didn't fare much better. McIlroy shot 71, with Thomas at 73 and Spieth -- who hit three balls in the water over his first eight holes -- shooting 75.