The sight of Tommy Fleetwood at the top of the leaderboard with Rory McIlroy in hot pursuit has raised hopes that a drought stretching back more than 30 years will finally be lifted this weekend with a UK golfer winning the Players Championship.
It hasn’t happened since Scot Sandy Lyle prevailed way back in 1987, and there would be a certain irony if either the Englishman or the Northern Irishman managed it, since between them they’ve done everything bar win in America over the past 12 months.
Fleetwood, runner-up at the US Open last June and still seeking a first win on American soil, is running into form at an exciting time.
Tommy Fleetwood posted an impressive 65 and leads the way in the Players Championship
The 28 year old followed up his top three finish in the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week with a marvellous 65 that was matched late on by American Keegan Bradley, with whom Fleetwood was tied for the lead at halfway at Bay Hill.
As for McIlroy, with five top six finishes from five starts this season, a 67 was about par for him given the way he’s been playing, or at least for the first three rounds of an event.
Other notable scores were the three under par totals of 69 posted by world number one Dustin Johnson, in-form Ian Poulter and fellow Englishman Matt Wallace, who benefitted from some sage advice from Sir Nick Faldo on his debut in this event.
Tiger Woods played in the trickier afternoon conditions and happily showed no ill-effects from the neck injury that forced his withdrawal last week.
Tiger Woods showed no ill-effects from the neck injury that forced his withdrawal last week
He got better as the round progressed with birdies at the 16th and 17th but a short, missed putt for par at the 18th will have hurt, as he concluded with a 70. That late aberration apart, though, he will have been pleased with his putting overall, which was vastly improved.
Starting from the 10th, Fleetwood played beautifully and got his reward with a stylish finish of three successive birdies for a wonderful homeward nine played in just 30 shots.
‘When you’re hitting it well you’re naturally a little more patient, feeling the birdies will come at some stage, and that’s how it was with this round,’ he said.
Rory McIlroy looks in top form too and is only two behind Fleetwood on the leaderboard
McIlroy could have scored a couple of shots lower on the par fives. Starting at the 10th, he missed from no more than 4ft for a birdie at the 16th, before being desperately unlucky at the 9th.
A perfectly struck five iron appeared destined to finish in eagle territory before landing on a sprinkler head and bounding 30 yards through the back, from where he failed to get up and down for a birdie.
‘Let’s hope that’s my bad break for the week out of the way,’ he said. ‘I much prefer playing this course in March. It lends itself to aggressive golf, my kind of golf, and I’d have taken a 67 before the start.’
Wallace’s veteran caddie Dave McNeilly used to caddy for Faldo way back in the day and the pair are still friends.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson, Ian Poulter and Matt Wallace (pictured) are in touch on three under
‘I think Nick has taken me a bit under his wing,’ said Wallace, playing in just third regular PGA Tour event, having finished tied sixth in his second last week.
‘He gave me some good advice before we started, and I hope to call on him going forward. You can’t help but learn from the best.’
Vast crowds gathered in the amphitheatre setting at the iconic island green par three 17th, and got their reward when American Ryan Moore achieved the first hole in one there for two years. What an ace, too, as his ball struck the flag halfway up the stick and still fell in. Sometimes, it really is your day.