Recap of the day
Morning wave: The players awoke to perfect scoring conditions – soft greens, no wind, time to take advantage and plenty did so. Hideki Matsuyama grabbed the clubhouse lead with a lap that included plenty of his trademark tee-to-green game, but which also featured highly unusual brilliance on the greens. His 9-under-par 63 left him two blows clear of bogey-free tournament debutant Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Harris English, who carded just his second Sawgrass sub-70 lap at his 21st attempt. Patrick Cantlay and Marc Leishman tucked into a tie for fourth, another two shots back, with 67s. Not everyone was happy, however, with some grumbling about mud balls on soft fairways (see below). And midway through the morning wave it was announced that no spectators would be allowed on the property during the final 54 holes (also see below).
Afternoon wave: The greens dried up and the wind made life a little more difficult. It wasn’t difficult, simply more demanding than earlier in the day. Consequently, whilst 12 players recorded 68s in the morning, only three joined them on that mark in the afternoon. The hardy trio was Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Rafa Cabrera Bello. The only man to better that score after midday was 2017 champion Si Woo Kim who laced a fine 65 to join the tie for second.
Revised outright betting
Matsuyama 7/2, Rahm 11/1, Cantlay 12/1, McIlroy 16/1, English 18/1, Kim 20/1, Leishman 22/1
Friday weather forecast
Remarkably similar conditions expected: partly cloudy, a wind of about 10 mph (but flatter early in the day), temperatures around 70 and humidity in the high 60s.
Leaders after at 18 holes
Hideki Matsuyama (63) – Gained 4.029 strokes on the field Tee to Green (to rank third in the field) which was no surprise, but the fact he gained 4.276 in Putting (ranking first) was amazing. Can he keep it up?
Harris English (65) – To rank top ten in SG Tee to Green, Approach the Green and Putting was a neat combination in a lap sharply contrasting with his history at Sawgrass (see below).
Christiaan Bezuidenhout (65) – Struggled from the tee (103rd for SG Off the Tee), but ranked top six for the other four SG categories. Landed 13-of-18 greens in regulation and went 5-for-5 in Scrambling.
Si Woo Kim (65) – Excellent in SG Tee to Green (T2 4.313), good for Putting (15th 1.992), but traditional stats like his work on the greens (first with 1.364 Putts per GIR).
Fate of the favorites
Rory McIlroy birdied 16, 17 and 18, but did so only to complete a level-par round of 72. He missed six greens and saved par only twice. Jon Rahm made a slow start (bogey-6 at the second), but fought his way back to a 69, a good effort when finding just 5-of-14 fairways and far from poor in comparison with other afternoon starters. Justin Thomas ranked outside the top 60 in four of five Strokes Gained categories on his way to a 71. And Bryson DeChambeau endured a tale of two nines: out in 4-under, back in 2-over for 70.
Hideki Matsuyama (63) – “I didn't have the greatest warm-up this morning, but once play started I got into a good groove. I made some putts last week and that seems to be the difference of recent late. It will be strange tomorrow. I think all of us will have to go back to our college days to play without a gallery.”
Patrick Cantlay (67) – “It was sneaky hard. I got so many mudballs that it was darn near a complete guessing game four or five times from the middle of the fairway. I don’t think the golf course should ever play like that.”
Dustin Johnson (70) – “The course is in really good shape, it's just I had a lot of mud balls and they were going in some funny spots. It was tough to control the golf ball.”
Rory McIlroy (72) - “We had a bit of a wait on the 16th tee for me to sort of gather my thoughts, and I said to Harry actually while we were waiting, ‘I've birdied the last three holes here to make the cut back in 2014 and ended up finishing in the top 10 after that.’ So, just that little memory of doing that a few years ago sort of sparked a few good swings.”
Road to victory at TPC Sawgrass
2019 Rory McIlroy – R1: 5th, R2: 1st, R3: 2nd
2018 Webb Simpson – R1: 1st, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
2017 Si Woo Kim – R1: 7th, R2: 16th, R3: 4th
2016 Jason Day – R1: 1st, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
2015 Rickie Fowler – R1: 11th, R2: 3rd, R3: 11th
Notes: History offers plenty of hope for players who have made slow starts. In the 21st century eight of the 20 winners were outside the top ten after 18 holes and four of them were T25 or worse. The most shots an eventual winner has made up over the last 54 holes in that period is seven (Craig Perks 2002).
Fate of the first round leaders at TPC Sawgrass – where did they finish?
2016 Jason Day 1st
Notes: Three of the last 23 players to lead after 18 holes have gone wire-to-wire, but many of the rest struggled. In fact, 14 of them ended the week outside the top ten.
Focus on – Hideki Matsuyama
The Japanese star is not in new territory when leading this tournament after 18 holes – he also did so in 2015. In all he’s had five first round leads on the PGA Tour, all of them shared, and has claimed the win just once. More notable, perhaps, is the fact that he has never gone sub-70 in the second round when in this situation in America.
Focus on – Harris English
We’re only 18 holes into this week, but the 30-year-old was always going to be an interesting watch this week. Why so? Because he represented a fine example of a good current form versus bad course form argument. He arrived at the tournament with eight top 20s finishes from his 11 seasonal starts, five of them top tens. In contrast, he finished T64 on his PLAYERS debut in 2012, was T33 a year later and has missed six cuts since. He had never gone sub-70 in round one and had done so only once in 20 laps of the Pete Dye-design. After pegging that opening 65 his recent form is currently holding sway.
Focus on – Russell Knox
The Scot found the heart of the first green, gave himself a 33-foot look at birdie and then – he five-putted. He would add two bogey-6s to reach the 12th green 5-over for the day, whereupon he drove his ball to within 12-feet and drained for an eagle-2 then added a pair of late birdies for a 73. “That’s golf,” he said. “It just kicks you when you’re down, but it will pat you back. Golf will always pay you back if you keep doing the right things.”
Focus on – the dynamic with no fans on the course
How will the unprecedented Coronavirus-influenced decision to close the gates on spectators impact on the players? Rory Sabbatini expects it to be “eerie”, Patrick Cantlay opted for “spooky”. “It's definitely going to be different and it's not going to be as fun,” said Justin Thomas. “But at the end of the day this is a lot bigger picture than that, it's about a very, very serious sickness and making sure that everybody's okay. Selfishly, I'm glad that we're able to still play, this is a little different situation than other sports where we're outdoors and we don't have the physical contact and we can take it as cautious as we can.” Graeme McDowell added: “Just a difficult morning really from a focus point of view. Lot of chatter in the warm-up truck and the range and the locker room and just difficult to get your head in the moment with all the question marks. So it’s nice to kind of have a plan in place now I suppose and going forward at least we all know where we stand for the next 24 hours or so anyway.”