Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. — A big finish for Tommy Fleetwood and a fast start for Keegan Bradley led each to a 7-under 65 on Thursday for a share of the lead in the opening round of The Players Championship.
Fleetwood kept a clean card in the March wind, kept his patience and was rewarded at the end with three birdie putts. Bradley had three eagle putts on the front nine, made one of them, and picked up a pair of birdies on the front nine.
Tiger Woods made only one par on the back nine – five birdies, three bogeys – in a round of 70. He has only broken 70 in the opening round one time at the TPC Sawgrass, when he won in 2013.
“Usually if I had one par, it’s usually shooting 30 or 29,” Woods said. “Not what I did today.”
It wasn’t as clean as Woods wanted, especially playing late in the afternoon when the wind began to die and the greens picked up a little more speed.
Even so, it was a reasonable start at a tournament where the key is not to fall too far behind, whether it’s in March or May.
The move from May to its traditional spot on the calendar brought green, softer conditions and more wind than usual. Even so, Fleetwood was among several early starters who managed to take aim on the TPC Sawgrass.
Fleetwood had only one birdie on the slightly easier back nine, and finished with birdie putts from 15 feet, 30 feet and 18 feet.
“If you’re in the fairway all the time, the course feels very, very different,” Fleetwood said. “And it’s a massive key around here. And then I just started picking a few shots up, and then you get on a run like 7, 8, 9, and it feels great after that. Just one of them would feel like a great round, so three of them … I’ll take it.”
Byeong Hun An and Brian Harman were at 66, while Rory McIlroy also played bogey-free for a 67. He was in a group with Ryan Moore, who made the ninth hole-in-one on the island-green 17th hole, and Vaughn Taylor, who must love the move back to March.
Taylor is among 23 players who have competed on the Stadium Players Course in both months. He tied for eighth the last time it was in March in 2006. In the eight times he played in May, he never made the cut.
Bradley, who a week ago shared the 36-hole lead with Fleetwood at Bay Hill, has only one top 10 in his eight trips to the TPC Sawgrass.
Early in my career, I felt so uncomfortable on this course. I really didn’t play well here,” Bradley said. “It didn’t really enjoy … it just wasn’t a good fit for me. And then this year, I really enjoy the different conditions that we’re playing in. I like the rough better, and I think it’s a great time of year to play here.”
Bradley had eagle putts from the fringe on the par-5 11th and short par-4 12th, both times settling for two-putt birdies. He drilled his second shot on the par-5 16th to the middle of the green and watched it feed to 12 feet away for his eagle. He played the back nine in 31, made a 5-foot birdie on No. 1 and sprinkled in a few key par saves before a final birdie to catch Fleetwood.
Harris English had an albatross – the third straight year for one at The Players – on the par-5 11th hole.
The scoring wasn’t unusual, nor was the tight leaderboard. It was simply the way the golf course was playing – longer off the tee because the fairways aren’t quite as fast with rye overseed, softer around the greens.
In May or in March, there’s generally no lack of excitement at Sawgrass.
McIlroy was among those who approved of the calendar change. This was only the third time in 10 starts at The Players he broke 70 in the first round.
“I think the course over the last 10 years … it hasn’t lent itself to aggressive play,” McIlroy said. “It’s sort of position and irons of the tee and really trying to plot your way around the golf course. I hit drivers on holes today that I would never have hit driver the last few years.
“I don’t know if the course is easier or not,” he said. “We’ll see what the stroke average is at the end of the day. But because I think it’s playing longer, it’ll play longer for most of the guys, and I think it should all even out. But I definitely like the golf course the way it is in March.”
Whatever the month, the island green is still there.
Moore used a 54-degree wedge for the first ace on the 17th hole since Sergio Garcia two years ago. It was the ninth hole-in-one on the most infamous hole at Sawgrass during The Players. Paul Casey put two in the water on the 17th and made a quadruple bogey.