Players: Fleetwood, Hoge lead but weather rules

Players: Fleetwood, Hoge lead but weather rules

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tommy Fleetwood narrowly qualified for the Players Championship and then endured a long, wet start at the TPC Sawgrass with a 6-under 66 to share the early lead with Pebble Beach winner Tom Hoge.

Where that leaves them after the opening round could take time to determine.

The PGA Tour enjoyed ideal weather with no delays for nine weeks in four states across five time zones to start the year. And then for its premier championship, it barely got started.

More than an inch of overnight rain delayed the start by an hour. Storms in the area resulted in another delay of more than four hours.

Fleetwood, a Ryder Cup star in Paris in 2018 who has gone two years since his last victory, returned from the long delay to complete a string of three straight birdies around the turn and then kept his round together with two big putts, one for par and another for birdie.

Hoge had an eagle on the par-5 second hole, his 11th of the round, and shot 31 on the front nine to join him in the clubhouse at 66.

Keith Mitchell was poised to join the until his approach to the 18th was right of the flag and landed on the slope of gnarly rough in the mounds, and he failed to save par. He was at 67, along with Riviera winner Joaquin Niemann, Anirban Lahiri and Kramer Hickok.

The stop-and-start nature might not be over.

The forecast called for a slightly lower chance of rain Friday — 99% instead of 100% — and there was a chance those who finished the round might not see the course again until Saturday.

Six players from the early side of the draw did not finish, meaning they return at 7:15 a.m. Friday to play one or two holes before getting the rest of the day off. Twelve players never even hit a tee shot.

Ian Poulter can rest easy, even if it takes time for his heart rate to steady. The 46-year-old could sense the horn about to sound to suspend play for darkness. By rule, players can finish the hole that anyone in the group has started.

Poulter was on the tee at the par-3 17th, the island green with a back pin and soft greens, when he fired his shot and barely saw it land 4 feet from the cup. He jogged all the way to the green, holed the birdie putt, ran through the tunnel beneath the bleachers and onto the 18th tee. He hit his tee shot as the group in front cleared out of the way from the fairway.

He did the same thing 11 years ago.

Even with only 66 players completing the round, that was enough time for the Stadium Course to provide its share of thrills and spills, mostly the latter.

Harold Varner III, needing good results to stay in the top 50 and make his win in Saudi Arabia pay off with a trip to the Masters, had a two-shot lead when he stepped to the 17th tee. His shot spun sharply down the slope, across the light cut of rough and into the water. His next shot from the drop zone nearly did the same. He made triple bogey, dropped another shot on the 18th and shot 69.

“Just was in between clubs and didn’t execute the shot, and that’s what you get a lot out here,” Varner said.

Amazingly, that was the only ball in the water out of 69 tee shots.

No need telling that to Adam Scott. The former Players champion pumped two tee shots into the water off the 18th tee and took a quadruple bogey on his way to a 78.

Fleetwood has reason to be happy just to have a tee time. He missed the cut at the Honda Classic and narrowly stayed inside the top 50, one of the criterium for the Players.

For the most part, it was safe and steady play, far from perfect though Sawgrass rarely demands that. He was 6 under through 14 holes when he hit a wild drive into the pine straw to the right of the sixth fairway, leading to bogey.

He was even further to the right on the seventh, but a superb save from behind the green kept him from dropping another shot, and then he holed a 25-foot birdie on the par-3 eighth.

“I’m chuffed to be in on that score,” Fleetwood said. “I felt like I drove the ball well aside from a couple, and I felt like I chipped and putted great. For sure, that was the most I could have got out of the round. So days like that are very, very pleasing.”

Long. Wet. But pleasing.

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