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.
Mickelson ‘shocked’ college company he used caught in scheme
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Phil Mickelson says he might be “more shocked than anyone” to learn that a college consulting company he has used the last three years has been accused of orchestrating a massive bribery scheme.
He said he never contributed to William “Rick” Singer’s foundation tied to his California-based company, Edge College & Career Network, but used the service to find the right fit for his children.
His oldest daughter is now a sophomore at Brown.
“We’re not part of this,” Mickelson said. “Most every family that has used his company are not a part of it. That’s why I think we’re all so surprised.”
Federal prosecutors said parents paid Singer millions of dollars to bribe their children’s way into college. Some of the payouts went to coaches and administrators to falsely make their children look like star athletes, and Singer also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students and paid off insiders at testing centers to correct students’ answers, authorities said.
More than 50 people have been charged.
A note from Mickelson and his wife, Amy, appears as a testimonial to Singer on a website for “The Key,” another name for his company. They thank him for his support in finding their daughter the right college.
“The college process is so layered and confusing. I don’t know what we would’ve done without your insight and belief in our daughter,” said the note, which Mickelson said was a text his wife sent to Singer.
“We, along with thousands of other families, hired he and his company to help us guide through the college application process, and we’re probably more shocked than anyone,” Mickelson said after his first round of The Players Championship. “We’ve been dealing with it the last few days, but that’s about it.”
Mickelson was delayed after his 74 because of random drug testing. Moments before meeting with reporters, he tweeted that he was not part of “this fraud.”
His daughter attended Pacific Ridge School in San Diego, where she was a co-captain of the tennis team and the school president. He has two other children, a sophomore and junior in high school, and says he has been using Singer’s company to find them the right colleges.
Mickelson said Singer never approached him about any fraudulent charges involved in the case. Singer pleaded guilty on Tuesday.
“Our kids ... schools are like fighting to get them,” Mickelson said. “I say that as a proud dad. But their grades, their outside activities, their worldly views on things, have colleges recruiting them. We weren’t even aware, really.”
Brown University spokesman Brian Clark said Thursday a case-by-case review of every varsity athlete admitted and enrolled as part of the recruitment process over the last four years generated “zero concerns.”
Asked about Mickelson’s daughter, Clark declined to disclose student names but said university officials had done a review of one student’s application material and academic credentials and that it “raised no concerns at all.”
Clark added that Brown has had no contact with the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice or any other federal agency.
Mickelson said Singer’s company helped to find the right college for their personalities and to make sure they knew what they needed academically and with test scores to be accepted into the college of their choice.
Michelle Smith in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.