It could not have been a finer spring morning in Ponte Vedra, it was perfect — subtle breezes, a soft, shot-friendly Stadium Course with perfect greens and Ospreys singing loudly from their towering pine perches.
It was there for the taking on day one at The Players and the way this track can play, it was one of those days where you better play well because it won’t get any easier.
A week ago, Friday, Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley found themselves tied for the 36-hole lead at Bay Hill. Both brought their best games on Thursday for the first 18 holes of this flagship event of the PGA Tour.
Fleetwood went around all 18 holes unharmed by any bogeys — a rarity on this evil Pete Dye design. Tommy was an early riser, played before the winds came up and his scorecard showed seven birdies, 11 pars that added up to 65. Six of those birdies came on his second nine, the front nine.
“I drove it great today — normally that’s the key to my game,” said the shaggy-haired Englishman, half of the European Ryder Cup’s “Moli-Wood” duo. “If you play well, there’s a score to be had,” and Fleetwood certainly had his. “It can punish you if you don’t,” he added and there were a bunch of guys punished accordingly.
Fleetwood turned in a solid performance at Bay Hill last week and tied for third.
Bradley figured in the hunt at Bay Hill at the halfway mark but failed miserably on the weekend with rounds of 75-78. He’ll have a chance to make up for that after his afternoon 65 put him on top of this elite field with Fleetwood. “It was one of those rounds that seemed easy,” said the former PGA champion, who is rediscovering his joy on the golf course. “Everything went right. You need looks on this golf course.”
Once again, Bradley pointed out that the putter is crucial for him. “Everything comes to putting for me,” said Bradley, who has fought hard to get his game back on track after the anchoring ban. “The battle to come back makes you enjoy days like this,” he said with a massive smile on his face.
Yet another Bay Hill contender was at it again in the first round.
Rory McIlroy’s 67 got him near the top and once again he might have yet another chance to lose from ahead. He hasn’t been a great finisher this season, a good starter but unable to find enough gas to win on Sundays.
McIlroy was the best of the big names on Thursday.
Dustin Johnson, who is supposed to be able to dismantle any course he plays, didn’t take advantage of the easier early morning conditions and shot 69. Justin Rose was worse. He turned in a 74 going out early. Brooks Koepka had to rally late in the afternoon to shoot even par while Justin Thomas did manage to get into red numbers with 71 while Bryson DeChambeau turned in a 70.
But this is the one place where things an turn in a hurry.
This may have been the best day, weather-wise, especially for the morning players.
You never know what’s going to happen come Sunday.