Fleetwood, Bradley tied for lead at Players, Tiger Woods five back


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — There’s a common denominator to the Players Championship leaderboard after Thursday’s opening round at TPC Sawgrass: It features three players at or near the top who were at or near the top at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational and failed to complete the job.

Some of the same players who prospered at Bay Hill last week are lurking at the Players Championship through 18 holes: Keegan Bradley, Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy.

None of those three won at Bay Hill, all succumbing to Francesco Molinari’s dazzling Sunday 64 that stole the tournament.

Bradley and Fleetwood each shot 7-under 65s to take a share of the lead into Friday’s second round. McIlroy is two shots back at 5-under after shooting 67. In between are Byeong Hun An and Brian Harman, both of whom shot 6-under 66s.

On the cusp of contention is Tiger Woods, who shot a 2-under 70 and is just five shots off the lead a week after pulling out of the Arnold Palmer with a neck strain.

Woods said he hopes to do on Friday what several players with early tee times did Thursday.

“They all went low and all the low rounds seemed like were predominantly in the morning,’’ he said. “Hopefully, we can catch it on the calm side and some smoother greens and post a low number and then see if the guys have to face what we had to face in the afternoon with the wind moving pretty good.’’

Bradley, who was tied with Fleetwood for a four-shot lead through 36 holes at Bay Hill after shooting 67-68, shot 75-78 in the final two rounds to plummet to a tie for 46th.

He called Thursday at Sawgrass “probably one of my most complete rounds that I’ve played all year.’’

“I haven’t had the results really that I’ve wanted,’’ Bradley said. “I don’t know what happened last weekend because I felt great, but hopefully I can do a little better here. I just felt great [Thursday] and I felt great last week and didn’t shoot the numbers I wanted to on the weekend.’’

Bradley said he was “really bummed out’’ about his weekend scores at Bay Hill, but added, “I’m playing good golf and good golf is rewarded on this course.’’

“I can take a lot away from last week,’’ he said. “This is a course that can go in a lot of different directions, so I’ve got obviously a long way to go.’’

Fleetwood, who like Bradley struggled over the weekend at Bay Hill to fall from contention, is seeking his first career PGA Tour victory. He’s won multiple times in Europe and was a Ryder Cup hero in the fall in France.

“Yeah, it’s clearly the next step for me to win over here, but winning is not easy, and I’ve just got to keep plugging away, keep doing the right things and focus on myself,’’ Fleetwood said. “Hopefully that will come.’’

McIlroy, who also had his issues closing at Bay Hill, failing to overcome a one-shot deficit entering the final round, said he fully expects Fleetwood to break through soon.

“He’s one of the best players in the world, and he’s had his chances already, so, yeah, I think it’s only a matter of time for sure,’’ he said.