The Players: Hideki Matsuyama's 63 overshadowed by off-course events at Sawgrass
By Keith Jackson at TPC Sawgrass
Last Updated: 13/03/20 6:13am
Hideki Matsuyama's record-equalling 63 earned him the first-round lead at The Players Championship before the tournament was cancelled due to coronavirus fears.
Matsuyama's sublime nine-under opener, just the fifth first-round 63 in tournament history, earned him a two-stroke lead over the field at the end of a surreal day in Ponte Vedra, which ended with the cancellation of the tournament and the next three events on the PGA Tour schedule.
After the championship got under way on schedule amid huge uncertainty following the cancellation of a number of high-profile sporting events in the United States, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced the tournament would be played to its Sunday conclusion but without the vast crowds that make this one of the premier weeks of the golfing year.
But shortly after 10pm local time, it was announced that The Players, next week's Valspar Championship, the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and the Valero Texas Open had all been called off.
Spectator ban as The Players continues
TPC Sawgrass will be closed to spectators from Friday, and the fan ban remains in place for weeks
Matsuyama certainly did his best to shift the focus back inside the ropes amid the muted atmosphere at the Stadium Course as he took advantage of the benign, early conditions to card eight birdies and an eagle at his final hole which earned him the clubhouse lead.
The Japanese ace made his intentions clear when, after starting at the 10th, he birdied his first four holes before making his lone mistake of the day, blocking an ambitious second from the rough at the long 16th into the water hazard on the right.
He would limit the damage to a bogey-six and soon got back on the birdie trail at the second before picking up three in a row from the fifth, and Matsuyama holed from 25 feet on the ninth green for the eagle which ensured a two-stroke advantage over Harris English, tournament rookie Christiaan Bezuidenhout and 2017 champion Si Woo Kim.
"I've been working hard and have a lot of confidence now in my swing," said Matsuyama after posting the first Thursday 63 since Jason Day four years ago. "Last week was a tough week at Bay Hill, but today I made some putts and that seems to be the difference of late and that was really the catapult to me to have a good round today.
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"It will be strange tomorrow. I think all of us will have to go back to our college days to play without a gallery. But with that said, I know there's a lot of people watching television and a lot of fans rooting for us and so I'll do my best."
Bezuidenhout was in contention at Bay Hill last week until a closing 79 derailed his challenge, but the 25-year-old South African wasted little time in getting over that disappointment with an impressive seven-birdie 65 which matched the earlier effort of English.
Kim made it a three-way tie for second when he capped the lowest round of the afternoon session with his sixth birdie of the day at the ninth, while Patrick Cantlay and Marc Leishman were a further two strokes off the pace.
British and Irish presence at the top end of the leaderboard was sparse, although a resurgent Graeme McDowell enjoyed a strong start with a 68, the former US Open champion one of a large groups of players who will return to a spectator-less course on Friday on four under par.
Rory McIlroy produced a sparkling finish to repair the damage of an erratic first 15 holes as he laboured to the turn in 38 and slipped to three over par when a wild tee shot deep into the trees at the 15th led to a double-bogey six.
The world No 1 lifted his spirits with an up-and-down from the front bunker to birdie 16 before he converted two of his sweetest approaches of the day for further gains at 17 and 18 which salvaged a respectable 72.