By Larry Fine
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - A more conservative approach off the tee has Rory McIlroy off and running at the Players Championship.
The world number two from Northern Ireland had never broken par on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and missed the cut in three previous Players appearances, but he turned that around with a six-under-par 66 in Thursday's opening round.
"This course is just about getting your ball in play," McIlroy said after his morning round left him three shots behind early first-round leader Roberto Castro.
"Once you do that, the way I feel like I'm hitting my irons, I can take advantage of that."
The 24-year-old McIlroy, still aiming for his first victory of the year after switching his ball and clubs, said he was getting more consistent with his swing and applied lessons learned from previous disappointments at Sawgrass.
"I don't hit any drivers on the front nine," said McIlroy, who uses the big club on the two par-fives on the back nine and on the long par-four 14th.
"There is no point because I'm still going to reach the green with a three-wood off the tee if I want to."
McIlroy, who started from the 10th hole, was five under par through his first nine and birdied the par-five second hole to reach six-under before parring the rest of the way.
"I had a lot of good shots out there, a lot of iron shots that were 12, 15 feet away from the pin and I got myself a lot of looks for birdies," he said.
"I adopted maybe more of a conservative strategy off the tee this year, but once you put your ball on the fairway that means you can be more aggressive into the greens."
McIlroy has come close to putting it all together this season, tying for eighth at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, finishing second at the Texas Open and tying for 10th at last week's Wells Fargo Championship.
A third-round 79 marred an otherwise good run at the Masters last month, where he finished tied for 25th.
"This year it's sort of been a couple of good days and a bad day, then a couple of good ones again and another bad one. I'm starting to get the consistency back in it, which is a good thing," said McIlroy.
"I think it's just been a gradual step-by-step process over the past few weeks."
McIlroy said his poor track record at the Players took a load off his shoulders coming in.
"I feel like I've got the game to contend," he said. "I came in here with not much pressure, and just wanted to go out and play well, and that's what I've done so far."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)