Rory McIlroy believes it is just a “matter of time” before Tommy Fleetwood wins his maiden PGA Tour title after his Ryder Cup team-mate claimed a share of the lead on day one of the Players Championship at Sawgrass.
Fleetwood birdied six of his last nine holes in an inward half of 30, just one shot outside the tournament record, to set an imposing clubhouse target of seven under par which was matched only by former US PGA champion Keegan Bradley.
Korea’s Ben An and American Brian Harman are a shot off the lead on six under, with McIlroy, Vaughn Taylor and Ryan Moore a stroke further back, Moore’s 67 including a spectacular hole-in-one on the iconic par-three 17th.
McIlroy’s good early-season form continued with a bogey-free round while Tiger Woods is two under par following an erratic 70 which included six birdies, four bogeys and just one par on the back nine.
Fleetwood started from the 10th and managed just one birdie in his first nine holes, but then picked up shots on the first, second and fifth and finished with a hat-trick of birdies from the seventh.
“I played really well all day apart from I hit a poor tee shot on 14 and got away with it,” Fleetwood told Sky Sports.
“And then on 16, the par five, I hit a poor second and I was a bit frustrated at that point because I had a lot of chances from 15 feet and didn’t make any. It just shows you, stay patient and things can happen.
“The course doesn’t make you feel very comfortable at all, you are always a semi-bad shot from struggling to make par. It’s one of the courses that’s the ultimate test in golf.
“I’ve played well here in the past and if I drive it well that’s a massive key for me. Driving is a strength for me normally and if you put it in play all the time in general you have a big advantage.”
Fleetwood finished seventh at Sawgrass last year and third in the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday, when Ryder Cup partner Francesco Molinari stormed through the field with a closing 64 to win his second PGA Tour title.
“I’m trying to keep up,” Fleetwood joked. “It’s hard these days but I’m trying my best. It’s clearly the next step for me to win over here but winning’s not easy and I’ve got to keep plodding away, do the right things and focus on myself.
“It’s a good time to be coming into form. It’s been different this year because I’ve been used to starting so fast but I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of good things and sometimes you just need a rhythm of shooting good scores and that seems like it’s coming.”
McIlroy has no doubt Fleetwood will taste victory in the United States sooner rather than later, adding: “He is one of the best players in the world, and he’s had his chances already. So, yes, I think it’s only a matter of time for sure.”
McIlroy was frustrated not to birdie the par-five ninth, his final hole, after his approach hit a sprinkler head and flew over the green into the crowd, but he was happy to find that the change in date from May to March meant the conditions were more conducive to aggressive play.
“Over the last 10 years it’s been irons off tees and really trying to plot your way around the golf course, I hit drivers on holes today where I would never have the last few years,” McIlroy, who has finished in the top six in all five starts in 2019, told reporters.
“Even when you are aggressive and you miss, it’s a touch easier to get yourself back into position. The rough isn’t as long or as gnarly and when you miss the greens you are not having to contend with that Bermuda (grass) and guess how it’s going to come out.”
England’s Matt Fitzpatrick will take a one-shot lead over Rory McIlroy into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.
Fitzpatrick, 24, is chasing his first PGA Tour win and, after back-to-back 70s in the opening two rounds, posted five birdies and dropped no shots in a 67 on Saturday to move to nine under par.
That is one clear of last year’s winner McIlroy, whose 66 saw him shoot up the leaderboard and firmly into contention at Bay Hill.
The Northern Irishman started the day seven shots behind Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley but birdied four of his first six holes and three of the last four.
It was reminiscent of McIlroy’s form 12 months ago, when eight birdies from his last 13 holes earned him victory.
That remains his last win, although he has finished in the top five in each of his last four events.
He said of his round on pgatour.com: “Just what I needed. It’s really tough out there, difficult conditions.
“I was more in control of my golf ball today, I hit more fairways, and because of that I gave myself more birdie chances and I converted a few of them. So I did everything I needed to do today to get myself back in the golf tournament and (I’m) excited to have another chance tomorrow.”
Both Bradley and Fleetwood struggled. The American bogeyed four of the first five holes and eventually signed for a 75 to drop into a tie for sixth, while Fleetwood’s day was even worse.
The Englishman did not manage a birdie until the 18th while bogeying the second, eighth and 15th and double-bogeying the 10th in a 76, leaving him four shots off the lead.
A strong English presence at the top of the leaderboard was completed by Matt Wallace, who is in a tie for third on seven under alongside Australia’s Aaron Baddeley and American Kevin Kisner.
Tommy Fleetwood took advantage of the par-five holes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in spectacular fashion to move into a share of the halfway lead at Bay Hill.
The Englishman boosted his hopes of winning his maiden title on the PGA Tour this weekend with a second round 66 on Friday, taking him to nine under par overall alongside Keegan Bradley.
Fleetwood found succour on the four long holes on the course, picking up six shots, with birdies at the fourth and 16th sandwiching eagles at the sixth and 12th following spectacular approach shots.
He told the PGA Tour website: “Funnily enough when I came off yesterday and I was in the truck with my trainer, just warming down for the day, he asked how my play was and I said ‘I could have played the par-fives better’.
“I was level-par with them yesterday. Today I made a much better job of those and you have to.
“On some courses, if you can score on the par-fives, you can shoot a good score, and that’s basically where I made up all my numbers.”
Fleetwood, who topped the European Tour order of merit in 2017, collected further birdies at the fifth and eighth to offset bogeys at the second and 10th in an eventful round.
While he and Bradley are now four shots clear of the rest of the field, Fleetwood admitted his form around the greens had kept him from dropping out of contention after carding a three under 69 in his opening round.
He added: “I’m leading the tournament now but yesterday, through the first 10 holes, I could have easily been out of the tournament as I was struggling.
“But the short game keeps you in and then all of a sudden you play some good golf and you can build some momentum.
“There’s not a golfer in the top five, top 10, top 20 in the world that doesn’t have one of the best short games going, so it’s pretty important.”
Bradley, the 2011 US PGA champion, made six birdies and two bogeys in his 68 to draw level alongside Fleetwood in Florida.
Fleetwood’s Ryder Cup partner Francesco Molinari is among six players on five under while English trio Eddie Pepperell, Matt Wallace and Matthew Fitzpatrick are a shot further back.
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, however, tumbled down the leaderboard after following up his opening 68 with a second-round 75 to sit on one under ahead of the weekend.