Golf: Fleetwood leads but Rory lurks as Players showdown opens

 Fleetwood plays his second shot on the ninth hole during the first round.
Fleetwood plays his second shot on the ninth hole during the first round.PHOTO: AFP

MIAMI (AFP) - Britain's Tommy Fleetwood fired a seven-under-par 65 to seize a one-stroke lead early in Thursday's (March 14) opening round of the US PGA 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 owned a one-stroke clubhouse edge over South Korean An Byeong-hun and American Brian Harman with four-time major winner McIlroy of Northern Ireland sitting fourth on 67 with half the field on the course.

"I felt like I left a few out there," McIlroy said. "I played well. I'm off to a good start."

Fleetwood, seventh at last year's Players and third last week at Bay Hill, seeks his first US 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."

It's no wonder Fleetwood adores the Sawgrass layout with its famed island green at the 17th hole.

"If you like golf, you should like this golf course really. It's just about as fair as you're going to get a test," Fleetwood said.

"If you hit it well like I did today, you're going to have chances and you can shoot a score. But if you get it started the other way it can easily go against you."

MCILROY ON 'JOURNEY'

An and Harman each took a bogey in his round but McIlroy also toured the layout bogey-free and opening off the 10th tee.

McIlroy made five-foot birdie putts at 11 and 12 and sank a nine-footer on the famed par-3 17th. He blasted out of a bunker to six feet and made his birdie putt at the second then sank an eight-foot birdie putt at 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."

McIlroy, whose last win came last year at Bay Hill, says improved fitness has boosted his drives and toughened an already solid part of his game.

"I'm hitting drivers off holes I wouldn't have dreamed of hitting drivers the past few years," he said. "I'm more aggressive."