Fleetwood, Hoge share early lead at storm-delayed Players

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Tommy Fleetwood, of England, hits to the green on the 9th hole during the first round of play in The Players Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Tommy Fleetwood needed a round like this. He has gone more than two years without winning, falling so far down the world ranking that he narrowly stayed in the top 50 at the cutoff to qualify for The Players Championship.

Amid two delays, one timely par save and plenty of good shots along the way, Fleetwood opened with a 6-under 66 to share the lead — for now — with Pebble Beach winner Tom Hoge.

And now he waits. Maybe until Saturday.

The PGA Tour's premier event with a $20 million purse got off to a stop-and-go start because of storms Thursday and a dire forecast for Friday. Only 66 players finished the opening round. Twelve didn't even hit their first tee shots.

“I've got a full round in today. I don't know when I'll play next, but I'm happy. I'm done," Fleetwood said. “I've had a really good day. I can sit on that. I can feel happy with my work and go from there.”

The PGA Tour enjoyed ideal weather with no delays for nine weeks in four states across five time zones to start the year. And for the richest event in golf, with the strongest and deepest field of the year, it barely got started.

More than an inch of overnight rain delayed the start by an hour. Storms in the area resulted in another delay of more than four hours.

Jon Rahm finally got his short game and putting to behave, and it carried him to a 69. Particularly pleasing was his birdie-par-birdie finish. Someone asked if he could take that momentum into tomorrow.

“First of all, I don't even know if I'm going to play tomorrow,” he said.

Fleetwood, a Ryder Cup star in Paris in 2018 whose last victory was in South Africa toward the end of 2019, returned from the long delay to make a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 second hole for his third birdie in a row.

Hoge had an eagle on the par-5 second hole, his 11th of the round, and shot 31 on the front nine to join him in the clubhouse at 66.

Keith Mitchell was poised to join the until his approach to the 18th was right of the flag and landed on the slope of gnarly rough in the mounds, and he failed to save par. He was at 67, along with Riviera winner Joaquin Niemann, Anirban Lahiri and Joaquin Niemann.

The stop-and-start nature might not be over.

The forecast called for a slightly lower chance of rain Friday — 99% instead of 100% — and there was a chance those who finished the round might not see the course again until Saturday.

Six players from the early side of the draw did not finish, meaning they return at 7:15 a.m. Friday to play one or two holes before getting the rest of the day off.

Ian Poulter can rest easy, even if it takes time for his heart rate to steady. The 46-year-old could sense the horn about to sound to suspend play for darkness. By rule, players can finish the hole that anyone in the group has started.

Poulter was on the tee at the par-3 17th, the island green with a back pin and soft greens, when he fired his shot and barely saw it land 4 feet from the cup. He jogged all the way to the green, holed the birdie putt, ran through the tunnel beneath the bleachers and onto the 18th tee. He hit his tee shot as the group in front cleared out of the way from the fairway.

He did the same thing 11 years ago and doesn't appear to have lost a step.

Even with only 66 players completing the round, that was enough time for the Stadium Course to provide its share of thrills and spills, mostly the latter.

Harold Varner III, needing good results to stay in the top 50 and make his win in Saudi Arabia pay off with a trip to the Masters, had a two-shot lead when he stepped to the 17th tee. His shot spun sharply down the slope, across the light cut of rough and into the water. His next shot from the drop zone nearly did the same. He made triple bogey, dropped another shot on the 18th and shot 69.

“Just was in between clubs and didn’t execute the shot, and that’s what you get a lot out here,” Varner said.

Amazingly, that was the only ball in the water out of 69 tee shots.

No need telling that to Adam Scott. The former Players champion pumped two tee shots into the water off the 18th tee and took a quadruple bogey on his way to a 78.

Fleetwood was 6 under through 14 holes when he hit a wild drive into the pine straw to the right of the sixth fairway, leading to bogey. He was even further to the right on the seventh, but a superb save from behind the green kept him from dropping another shot, and then he holed a 25-foot birdie on the par-3 eighth.

“I’m chuffed to be in on that score,” Fleetwood said. “I felt like I drove the ball well aside from a couple, and I felt like I chipped and putted great. For sure, that was the most I could have got out of the round. So days like that are very, very pleasing.”

Long. Wet. But pleasing.


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