PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla., March 12 (Reuters) - Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama took the early first-round lead with a course record-equalling nine-under-par 63 at the Players Championship on Thursday.
In perfect morning conditions on a day when the PGA Tour announced that no spectators would be allowed on the TPC Sawgrass course from Friday onwards due to coronavirus concerns, Matsuyama kept his focus on the golf.
His performance earned a two-stroke lead over South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout and American Harris English with half the field back in the clubhouse.
Matsuyama capped off his round off in style by sinking a 25-foot eagle putt at the par-five ninth, his 18th hole, to become the ninth player to shoot 63 on the famous course.
“I knew if I made that eagle putt I would be close to a course record and I’m happy it went in,” said Matsuyama, a former world number two who is now 21st in the rankings.
“I didn’t have the greatest warm-up this morning, but once play started I got into it, got into a good groove.”
Mediocre putting has prevented Matsuyama from playing to his full potential for the past few years, but he birdied his first four holes, sinking a couple of eight-footers and rolling in two longer ones in a dream start.
“I’ve been working hard and have a lot of confidence now in my swing,” he said.
“Last week was a tough week at Bay Hill, (finishing 56th) but today I made some putts and that seems to be the difference of late and that was really the catapult to me having a good round today.”
Some of the big names failed to take advantage of the early conditions, among them Americans Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth, both of whom shot 75 as their mediocre seasons continued.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy was among those with a late tee time.
Taiwan’s C.T. Pan withdrew without hitting a shot, citing concerns over the coronavirus, while South African Louis Oosthuizen pulled out during his round with a shoulder injury. (Writing by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Ed Osmond)