The first round of the 2019 Players Championship was exciting in the morning before it stalled a little once Tiger Woods got going in the afternoon. Then it picked back up again at the end. We got what we thought would be our first round leader — Tommy Fleetwood with a 7-under 65 — early in the day, but Keegan Bradley finally ran him down late with a superb 30 on the back nine of the course (his front nine on the day). Those two lead — just as they did after two rounds last week at Bay Hill — after 18 holes here.
Let’s take a look at nine takeaways from what went down in Round 1 at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday.
1. Fleetwood the flusher: I felt like Tommy Locks would kill here, and he has so far. It’s nothing new for him after finishing in the top 15 here twice in the last two years. “I drove it great today. That’s kind of the key to my game,” he told Golf Channel. “That’s where my strengths normally lie.”
I can confirm. He finished top 20 in driving and hit 10 of 14 fairways, including six of seven on the front side (where he shot 30 coming home after starting on the back nine). But he might have hit his irons even better. Fleetwood hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation and was No. 3 in the field in strokes gained on approach shots. That’ll play nicely on the weekend here. Everything for both him and Bradley — and Bradley noted this for himself after his round — will come down to how many putts they hole.
2. Tough par 3s: One thing that stood out Thursday is how long and difficult the par 3s are on this course. No. 17 gets all the attention, but it was the easiest one on Thursday as it played to a 2.99 average. Nos. 3, 8 and 13, though? They played 0.7 strokes over par in Round 1.
3. The fifth albatross in Players history: Harris English netted it on the par-5 11th hole. It was also the third in the last three years as Brooks Koepka made one last year and Rafa Cabrera Bello made one the year before that.
4. Rory talks Christmas: After his tidy bogey-free 67 in Round 1, Rory McIlroy sat down with Mike Tirico of Golf Channel and told him that somebody recently compared the rest of his 2019 to Christmas. You know there are going to be presents under the tree, it’s just hard to have the patience needed to wait and open them. McIlroy only made three putts over 6 feet and none over 10 feet. If I’m the field, that feels problematic.
5. Harold Varner’s penalty: Varner shot an even-par 72 in Round 1, but it turned into a 74 because he was given two penalty strokes. Why? Well, he started his round with 13 clubs and had two members of his team bring him a spare driver — which was put together on the course while he played. Once he put that drive in play, he was docked. You can add a club if you start with 13, but you “can’t build a club with components carried by anyone on the golf course,” said tournament referee Ken Tackett. This is to keep players from custom-building the clubs they need during a round. It’s probably a good rule, but it stinks for Varner.
6. How important is the first round? According to my dude Justin Ray, it’s very important. Those at 67 or better include Ryan Moore, Vaughn Taylor, Rory McIlroy, Brian Harman, Ben An, Keegan Bradley and Tommy Fleetwood.
7. Big name struggles: Justin Rose shot a 74. Phil Mickelson shot a 74. Jordan Spieth shot a 76. Rickie Fowler shot a 74. All were on PGA Tour Live, which means I saw them all day. Fowler was sick, and Spieth has been playing terribly for a while now. Mickelson never plays this course well, and Rose especially seemed bent out of shape about his game, the course or maybe a little bit of both. Mickelson and Rose made triples in their rounds (more on this in a minute), although Mickelson’s may have been worse as it came on a four putt, three of which were from 50 inches or closer. Spieth made two doubles. It was not a banner day for some of the PGA Tour’s finest, especially considering more than half the field was even par or better.
8. Ceiling and floor: This thought provided by Fleetwood to Golf Channel after his 65 caught my eye. “It’s a great golf course. It’s one of the fairest but toughest tests that you can get. If you play well, you can score.” To his point, there were 23 eagles but 68 doubles or worse. It does feel like there’s a high ceiling but also a low floor when it comes to scoring, which makes for a really exciting tournament.
9. Average score on No. 17: Only once since 1997 has the scoring average for the week dipped below three. It was 2.993 on Thursday, and it was only there because Ryan Moore made just the third ace sine 2002.