EDITOR'S NOTE—This story was written prior to the PGA Tour's Thursday announcement that it was canceling the remainder of the Players Championship.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Let’s make this abundantly clear: The main story of Thursday’s opening round of the Players Championship—the only truly important takeaway of the day—was the coronavirus pandemic and its continued impact on the golf world. Anything that happened on the course at TPC Sawgrass is secondary.
Still, a golf tournament did transpire on Thursday. From 30,000 feet, you might not have even noticed a difference—144 players teed it up, perfect conditions yielding low scores. TPC Sawgrass was pristine TPC Sawgrass. The fairways were manicured, the greens slick, the pins tucked. And, notably, fans lined the fairways, though that won’t be happening again on the PGA Tour anytime soon.
Here are 5 things that stood out from a very peculiar day indeed.
1. Hideki Matsuyama ties the course record
The Japanese star finished up his round at virtually the same time commissioner Jay Monahan was announcing that the PGA Tour would be playing the rest of this tournament and the next three without fans. With that, Matsuyama’s course record-tying 63 went largely unnoticed. But what a round of golf it was: eight birdies, an eagle on his last hole, and a bogey on the par-5 16th after hitting his second shot in the water.
So far this season, Matsuyama has been striking the ball tremendously well—as he always does—ranking second in strokes gained tee to green. The putter has been downfall, the sole reason he hasn’t won since August 2017. On Thursday, the flatstick was surprisingly his friend—he picked up more than four shots on the greens alone, the best of anyone in the field. Given how consistent his ball-striking is, Matsuyama is absolutely a threat to win so long as his putts anywhere near average the next couple days.
2. Rory McIlroy’s title defense gets off to a so-so start
Last week at Bay Hill, McIlroy posted his seventh straight top-five finish on the PGA Tour, becoming the first player since Tiger Woods in 2006 to accomplish the feat. And McIlroy did so despite a third-straight so-so final round. That’s how well he’s played in the early parts of tournaments this season; McIlroy’s 67.50 Round 1 scoring average leads the tour.
It was a different story, however, on Thursday. It wasn’t windy by any stretch in the afternoon, but it was windier than it was in the morning, and McIlroy was already nine shots off the pace when he teed off at 1:51 pm. He was 12 back after making a double bogey on the par-4 14th to fall to three over. But in typical McIlroy fashion, he birdied his final three holes of the day to finish at even par. (As luck would have it, McIlroy was then given a random drug test by the Tour after signing his card.)
McIlroy tees off at 8:46 a.m. off the 10th tee tomorrow. Smooth greens and calm conditions likely await. We’ll set the over/under at 66.5.
3. Struggling big names continue to struggle
There was a noticeable lull in “Jordan Spieth is searching for his way back” stories in the lead-up to the Players, which feels like evidence that his slump has been going on long enough that we can’t even call it a slump anymore. Spieth actually struck the ball decently well on Thursday, which is a positive given how poorly he’s been swinging it of late, but he finished second-to-last in putting for the day en route to a three-over 75.
Turns out that was actually pretty good compared to his buddy and playing partner on Thursday, Rickie Fowler, who ended up shooting a four-over 76. The 2015 Players champion has quietly slid to world No. 27 and has major work to do if he’s to play the weekend.
Justin Rose missed just two cuts in 47 starts across in all of 2018 and 2019. He’s missed three of his first five in 2020. In related news, he showed up to Bay Hill with a bag full of TaylorMade clubs, a curious development given he signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Honma at the beginning of 2019. With a mixed set in his bag, Rose posted 75. Phil Mickelson (75), Tony Finau (75), Henrik Stenson (74), Paul Casey (74) and Tommy Fleetwood (78) also shot over par. Fleetwood missed his first cut in 31 starts last week at Bay Hill; barring a minor miracle, he’ll miss his second in a row.
4. Christiaan Bezuidenhout, people
The 25-year-old South African with the tricky name has a helluva story to tell. He enters the week ranked No. 48 in the world on the strength of great play on the European Tour and has overcome a ton. At age 2, he accidentally drank rat poison, which damaged his central nervous system, causing a lasting, noticeable stutter. When he was 14, he was prescribed medication for anxiety. The medication contained beta blockers, which led to a suspension as an amateur.
Fast forward to now and he’s on the verge of securing a Masters berth (assuming the Masters happens) by being ranked inside the top 50 the week before Augusta. He shot seven-under 65 on Thursday, putting himself in great position in the biggest event between now and the Masters. Great stuff.
5. The kids are all right
Among the numerous “Supergroups” clustered together at TPC Sawgrass was The Super Kids—Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, all of whom enjoyed decorated amateur careers, turned pro within a month of each other last June, and already are PGA Tour winners. Wolff spoke on Wednesday about how comfortable he felt with the other two, that he was quite looking forward to it all.
We now see why. Hovland and Morikawa both shot four-under 68s and Wolff managed 69. We’d say there will be a huge crowd following the three charismatic youngsters on Friday, but we know there will be no crowd following them.