Hideki Matsuyama. Credit Getty Images

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, Byeong Hun An of Korea and Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan fired matching 3-under 69s to lead the Asian challenge at THE PLAYERS Championship on Thursday and trail a trio of superstars by four shots after the first round.

Former PLAYERS champion Rory McIlroy, reigning U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark and seven-time PGA TOUR winner Xander Schauffele share the early lead with 65s, with Canadian Nick Taylor and England’s Matt Fitzpatrick lying a shot back in the PGA TOUR’s flagship US$25 million tournament.

Nine players will resume their first rounds tomorrow morning after fading light saw play being suspended at 7.32pm local time.

Debutant Ryo Hisatsune of Japan rued a sluggish finish where he dropped three shots over his last two holes at the infamous 17th and 18th holes en route to a 70, which was matched by Korean duo Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim, the 2017 PLAYERS champion.

The in-form An, who finished tied eighth at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard for his third top-10 of the season, produced only his fourth round in the 60s since making his first appearance at The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

“A lot of positives. I’m hitting it great, driving it great, hitting shots into the green pretty good and have good control around the greens. I was happy with today, apart from a couple of shots. If I can play like this for the next three days, I’ll be very satisfied,” said An, whose best finish in four appearances at THE PLAYERS is T26 in 2019.

Teeing off in the afternoon session presented tougher conditions as An hit five birdies, including one on his last hole, against two bogeys. “The greens were a little tougher to putt on compared to the morning, so I guess that’s why the scores are not as good,” said An, who is seeking his first PGA TOUR win. “Better greens hopefully (tomorrow morning) and maybe a little calmer too. I’m swinging it great and hopefully I can swing like this tomorrow.”

Matsuyama, who won the Genesis Invitational last month for a ninth PGA TOUR victory, bounced back from two bogeys in his first three holes by carding five birdies on Hole Nos. 4, 6, 9, 15 and 16.

C.T.Pan. Credit Getty Images

“I was all over the place today so to come in under par is something positive to take into tomorrow,” said Matsuyama, who holds three career top-10s at TPC Sawgrass.

“Around the seventh hole, I kind of figured out what my body was going to allow me to do and was able to hit some good shots after that. I’m still not 100% (with a lower back issue).  I still can’t rely on my putting so I’m hoping to hit some shots close tomorrow and leave myself with makeable birdie tries.”

Pan converted a 30-foot birdie on the first hole and an eagle on his next en route to a solid start. The one-time TOUR winner rifled a four wood from 239 yards out to three feet for his eagle, before trading three more birdies against as many bogeys. He missed seven greens in regulation but scrambled beautifully to save par on five occasions.

“I played very well. The greens are surprisingly soft, so it was relatively easy. It wasn’t until the wind picked up on the back nine that it became difficult. I had a chance to make a lot of birdies on the front nine, which is the most important,” said Pan, whose career best finish at THE PLAYERS is T46 in 2018.

“The course is difficult. The most important thing here is the tee shot. You need to be able to hit a draw and fade and I hit a lot of fairways (11 of 14). I must have been playing well recently. THE PLAYERS is important to me,” said Pan.

McIlroy, who won THE PLAYERS in 2019, tied the tournament record with 10 birdies in a round as he chases a 25th career win on the PGA TOUR, despite finding water twice with errant drives on the 7th and 18th holes.

“It would be nice to shoot 62 and not have two in the water, I guess,” smiled the Northern Irishman, who is ranked second in the world. “I had a decent day on Sunday at Bay Hill and shot 70, for sure I would have taken Monday off here. But because of not shooting a decent score, I grinded on the range and figured something out and put the time in, and it’s sort of already reaping benefits, so that’s nice.”


Partial First-Round Notes – Thursday, March 14, 2024

Weather: Mostly sunny. High of 75. Wind ENE 6-12 mph.

Suspension of play: The first round was suspended at 7:32 p.m. ET due to darkness with nine players left to complete the round and will resume at 8:50 a.m. Friday. The second round will begin as scheduled at 7:40 a.m.

Current Leaderboard

Pos. Player R1
T1 Xander Schauffele 65 (-7)
T1 Rory McIlroy 65 (-7)
T1 Wyndham Clark 65 (-7)
T4 Nick Taylor 66 (-6)
T4 Matt Fitzpatrick 66 (-6)


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