PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tommy Fleetwood kept a clean card in the March wind, kept his patience and was rewarded at the end with three straight birdies for a 7-under 65 to set the early pace Thursday in The Players Championship.
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.
Tiger Woods was among the late starters on the Players Stadium Course. Of those playing in the afternoon, Keegan Bradley and Ryan Moore were the only serious threats to catch Fleetwood. Moore had a hole-in-one on the island-green 17th.
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.
Charles Howell III holed out for an eagle from a fairway bunker on the fourth hole. Harold Varner holed out from the rough on No. 1.
"Holing out from a fairway bunker on that hole, no, that will never happen again," Howell said. "I used that up, so that's done."
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.
English's shot barely cleared the bunker and rolled softly into the cup for his 2 on the 11th hole, the first albatross on that hole since Hunter Mahan in 2007. It was the fifth in tournament history.
Fleetwood, the 36-hole leader last week at Bay Hill until a bad patch on Saturday took him out of the mix, kept motoring along. He putted for birdie on all but two holes, getting up-and-down from 127 yards on the 14th hole and from just off the green at No. 4.
"If you like golf, you should like this golf course, really," Fleetwood said. "It's just about as fair as you're going to get a test. If you hit it well like I did today, you're going to have chances and you can shoot a score, and people are shooting scores. But you can also get it the other way, as soon as you start struggling and start going the other way, it can easily go against you. It's an amazing course for that."