Fleetwood, Bradley lead, McIlroy lurks at Players
Ponte Vedra Beach - England's Tommy Fleetwood fired a seven-under-par 65 to share the lead with American Keegan Bradley after Thursday's opening round of the PGA Tour's Players Championship with Rory McIlroy lurking two adrift.
Fleetwood's bogey-free round at TPC Sawgrass included birdies on six of his last nine holes after starting at the 10th hole at the Ponte Vedra Beach layout.
"If I was going to pick a start, that would be it," Fleetwood said. "I've done a good job of keeping myself in it."
The 28-year-old Englishman was matched in the afternoon wave by 2011 PGA Championship winner Bradley, who had five birdies and an eagle in a nine-hole run.
"It was one of those rounds that just felt easy. It was a day where everything went right," Bradley said. "I just felt really comfortable."
Sharing third on 66 were South Korean An Byeong-hun and American Brian Harman with four-time major winner McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Americans Ryan Moore and Vaughn Taylor on 67.
"I felt like I left a few out there," McIlroy said.
"I played well. I'm off to a good start."
Moore aced the par-3 17th hole with its famed island green on the fly, his fifth PGA hole-in-one.
Fleetwood, seventh at last year's Players and third last week at Bay Hill, seeks his first PGA title after four wins on the European Tour, the most recent of them last year defending a title at Abu Dhabi.
"It's clearly the next step for me to win over here," Fleetwood said.
"But it's not easy. I've got to keep plugging away and focusing on myself and hopefully that will come.
"I feel like I've been doing a lot of good things. Sometimes you need to just shoot some low scores. That seems like it's coming. Just try and keep that going."
Fleetwood managed only one birdie on his first nine, that coming at the par-4 12th when he found a greenside bunker off the tee then blasted out two feet from the cup and tapped in the putt.
Fleetwood birdied the first hole from 20 feet and had a two-putt birdie from 60 feet at the par-5 second, then put his approach at the par-4 fifth to three feet to set up another.
A spectacular closing birdie run saw last year's US Open runner-up sink a 15-foot putt at seven, a 28-footer at the par-3 eighth and blast out of a bunker to 17 feet and make another putt at the par-5 ninth to end his day.
"You get on a run like seven, eight and nine and it's a great feel around here," Fleetwood said.
"I stayed patient and the wind picked up. The course got tougher but I drove it so well I was always in good position. It's a massive key around here."
Bradley, who also began on the back nine, tapped in birdies at 11 and 12 then took his lone bogey at the par-3 13th, missing a seven-footer for par.
He answered with a 13-foot birdie at 15, a 12-foot eagle putt at the par-5 16th "that was a nice kickstart" and a 12-foot birdie putt at 18.
"Any time you birdie (18) it's like making an eagle," said Bradley, who later added birdies at one and seven.
McIlroy, also a back-nine starter, toured the famed Sawgrass layout bogey-free.
McIlroy made five-foot birdie putts at 11 and 12 and sank a nine-footer on the famed 17th. He blasted out of a bunker to six feet to and birdied the second then hit an eight-footer to birdie the fifth.
"I'm comfortable out there with my attitude and I'm playing well," said McIlroy.
After making changes last year to correct struggles, McIlroy feels on the right track with the Masters, and a chance to complete a Career Grand Slam, just a month away.
"I feel like I've been on a journey for the past six or seven months to get where I can challenge to be the best player in the world and win tournaments like this," McIlroy said. "It's about staying patient."
Former world number one Tiger Woods opened with a 70. The 14-time major winner birdied 16 and 17 but missed a four-footer for par to bogey 18.
"It was tricky out there," Woods said.
"Greens got a little bit on the bumpier side toward the end and it became a bit more challenging to make the putts."
American Harris English had an albatross at the par-5 11th, holing out from the fairway from 236 yards on his way to an opening 70.
Leading scores after Thursday's opening round of the PGA Tour's Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida (USA unless noted, par 72):
65 - Tommy Fleetwood (ENG), Keegan Bradley
66 - An Byeong-hun (KOR), Brian Harman
67 - Rory McIlroy (NIR), Vaughn Taylor, Ryan Moore
68 - Brendan Steele, Rory Sabbatini (SVK), JT Poston, Kyle Stanley, Kevin Kisner
69 - Michael Thompson, Matt Wallace (ENG), Trey Mullinax, Charles Howell, Ian Poulter (ENG), Billy Horschel, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm (ESP), Sergio Garcia (ESP), Matt Kuchar, Abraham Ancer (MEX), Li HaoTong (CHN), Tom Hoge, Brandon Harkins, Joel Dahmen, Luke List, Scott Langley, Brandt Snedeker, Patrick Reed, Tony Finau, Bud Cauley, Denny McCarthy