Recap of the day
Morning wave: Englishman Tommy Fleetwood has been banging on the door of a first PGA Tour win in recent weeks (T4 at halfway in Mexico, T3 last week at Bay Hill) and now he has another title tilt in his sights after a scintillating bogey-free 7-under-par 65 earned him the clubhouse lead. Byeong Hun An and Brian Harman chased him home with 66s, whilst Rory McIlroy is in the hunt following a 67. Shot-of-the-morning honors went to Harris English who drained his second shot from 236-yards at the par-5 11th for an albatross two. Late in the wave the wind got up.
Afternoon wave: Deja vu of a kind because Fleetwood’s fellow 36-hole API leader of last week, Keegan Bradley, joined him at the top here with a 65. It was a smart effort in more difficult conditions. McIlroy, two behind on 5-under, was joined by Vaughn Taylor and Ryan Moore, who slam dunked a hole-in-one at the 17th (his eighth). Shot of the afternoon? Aaron Baddeley found the green at 17 in one (he’s hit 13 balls in the water there, the most by anyone since 2003 and the next worst number is nine).
Notables: -3 Ian Poulter, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Sergio Garcia, -2 Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau, Tiger Woods, Webb Simpson, Jason Day, -1 Justin Thomas, E Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, +2 Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson, +3 Henrik Stenson, +4 Jordan Spieth
Revised outright betting: McIlroy 6/1, Fleetwood 13/2, Johnson 12/1, Bradley 12/1, An 18/1, Woods 20/1, Rahm 28/1, Garcia 28/1
Friday weather forecast
Sunny spells breaking out from the cloud cover, temperatures in the low 70s, humidity up at 70%, very little chance of rain, a fresh breeze of around 13mph, but note that the wind is set to completely change direction at the weekend.
Leaders after 18 holes
Tommy Fleetwood (65) – Cruised to the turn with eights pars and one birdie, then torched the front nine in a mere 30 blows (three pars, six birdies). Landed 16 of 18 greens in regulation and went 2-for-2 in Scrambling. A fifth consecutive under-par round of the course.
Keegan Bradley (65) – In his first seven visits to the tournament he never once broke 70 on Thursday and now he makes it two in a row. Moreover, he broke his previous low by two. A similar manner of scoring to Fleetwood; in his case 14 of 18 greens in regulation and 4-for-4 in Scrambling.
Byeong Hun An (66) – Found only 8 of 14 fairways, but little inconvenienced and a smart short game helped as he went 4-for-5 in saving par from off the greens. Sixth time in seven laps of Sawgrass that he has broken par.
Brian Harman (66) – Missed five greens in regulation and had a hot putter, draining four birdies from the 7 to 12 feet range and another from 26’9”. His 23rd circuit of Sawgrass and just his fourth sub-70 score. Previous low was a R2 68 in 2012.
Fate of the favorites
Dustin Johnson (69) – Flew to the turn, playing the back nine in 4-under, but limped home with eight pars and a final hole bogey-6. His 11th appearance here and third opening lap in the 60s.
Rory McIlroy (66) – Landed 14 of 18 greens in regulation and was 100% at Scrambling par. A tenth visit to Sawgrass, his second sub-70 start and equals his low round one score (previously recorded in 2013).
Justin Thomas (71) – Three holes in this seemed like his day, with a birdie number being penciled in on every green. However, despite another three par breakers before the end, he also added three bogeys and a double bogey. Finding only 7 of 14 fairways hurt.
Justin Rose (74) – Played the back nine first and made par at every hole, then a recent pattern of scratching big numbers re-emerged. He had a triple bogey-7 at the first and a double bogey-6 at the fifth. Located only five fairways.
Tiger Woods (70) – Made the turn in a calm level-par (one birdie, one bogey) and then had a back nine of total mayhem. Just one par among five birdies and three bogeys. Needed to scramble six times and saved par just twice.
Tommy Fleetwood (65) - "I played really well all day apart from 16 with a poor second shot. I had a lot of chances from 15 feet and didn't make them. But it just shows, you need to stay patient. 7, 8, 9 was a great way to finish, holing putts. This course doesn't make you feel comfortable, you're always a semi-bad shot from not making par. If I drive it well here it's been a big advantage, but I'm not sure if it being soft takes that away a little."
Dustin Johnson (69) – “Very happy with that. It got tougher late in the round with the wind. I like the changes in the calendar, playing it over-seeded. It used to have a bit of a luck element. I can hit more drivers now.”
Road to victory at TPC Sawgrass
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
2014 Martin Kaymer – R1: 1st, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
Notes: So three out of the last five winners went wire-to-wire. Simpson was T1 after 18 holes and then escaped the field; Day was never less than two swings clear; Kaymer was free for 36 holes, got caught on Saturday, and then pushed on. But to find the next winner who stayed at the top all week you need to scroll all the way back to Hal Sutton in 2000. In all, nine of the last 21 winners were not in the top ten after the first round, five of those were not even in the top 20, and Justin Leonard (1998), Tiger Woods (2001) and Stephen Ames (2006) were all T37 or worse.
Fate of the 18-hole leaders at TPC Sawgrass – where did they finish?
2016 Jason Day 1st
2014 Martin Kaymer 1st
Notes: What a contrast! Three of the men holding or sharing the lead at this point in the last five years converted the win, but ten of them didn’t even make the top ten by the end of the week.
Focus on – Back in March again
After his 67 Rory McIlroy was very revealing about the impact of the tournament’s move back into March. “I think the course over the last ten years in May hasn't lent itself to aggressive play,” he said. “It was all about position off tees and trying to plot your way around the golf course, where I hit drivers on holes today that I would never have hit driver the last few years. The fairways are playing so much wider, you can be so much more aggressive off the tee. It's a different setup. The ball is stopping within ten yards of where it's landing, it's a little bit more my style and I feel very comfortable here whereas over the last few years I haven't. It lends itself to aggressive play which I like.”
Focus on – Tommy Fleetwood
The Englishman has had a well-publicized three-stage career: Promise, struggles, rebirth. In that first tranche he finished T71 in the 2015 Cadillac Championship at Doral, but in the third he has almost always impressed in Florida. In fact, he has four top tens from six starts since the start of 2017 and has never finished worse than T41. With his opening 65 he’s on track to add another decent effort. He’s also 1-for-3 at converting an 18-hole lead into a win.
Focus on – Dustin Johnson
As noted above, his 69 was a third round in the 60s on Thursday at Sawgrass and it is also his second successive one. Keep a close eye on what happens in the next two days however. In his previous nine second rounds at this course he has never once broken 70 and his third round record was, until last year, even worse. He shot a 69 12 months ago, but before that averaged 74.14 on Moving Day.