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G-Mac: I had to set virus talk aside to make a solid start



Good eye: Graeme McDowell plays his second shot on the fourth hole at Sawgrass

Good eye: Graeme McDowell plays his second shot on the fourth hole at Sawgrass

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Good eye: Graeme McDowell plays his second shot on the fourth hole at Sawgrass

Graeme McDowell admitted he had to overcome coronavirus 'hysteria and chatter' amongst his fellow competitors at The Players Championship to card an opening-round four-under-par 68, featuring a stunning five-under back nine.

McDowell's highlight came at Sawgrass' iconic island green par-three 17th, where he drained a 30ft putt to help him to within five of early leader Hideki Matsuyama, who tied the course record with a breathtaking nine-under-par 63.

As a result of Covid-19, the PGA Tour confirmed during McDowell's round that fans would not be permitted at events, beginning with today's second round at Sawgrass and stretching until the Valero Texas Open on April 2-5, the week before The Masters is scheduled to be played.

As the situation developed around his early morning tee-time, McDowell admitted players were distracted from the task at hand.

"I'm not really sure a lot of heads were in it with hysteria and chatter in the locker room but once I got out there, it was just good to get a run of birdies and set up for the week," he said.

"It's unprecedented and I wouldn't have been surprised if the horn had blown mid-round today to get everybody in and review the situation.

"Thankfully there are smarter people out there to make the decision. Golf has to show some solidarity and that we're taking this seriously. Our arena is very different (to other sports). We're talking hundreds of acres out there but there are still people in close proximity potentially passing the disease and it was important the commissioner did something about it."

Such distraction perhaps helped explain a slow start to McDowell's round, as he made the turn at one over par after a run of eight pars and a disappointing bogey six at the par-five second after finding the front bunker.

However, his round was kick-started with eerily similar birdies at the 10th and 11th, two stunning approaches, both from an identical 134 yards, to set up two tap-in putts and get into red numbers at one under par.

Those were followed up by a third consecutive birdie at the short par-four 12th.

With just 41 yards left for his approach, it took a well-holed 20ft putt to put the Ulsterman two under par.

Two-putt pars at 13, 14 and 15 set up more back-to-back birdies at 16 and the par-three 17th.

Two well-struck long shots left McDowell just off the front edge of the par-five 16th, and he routinely converted an up-and-down for birdie before rattling in that 30ft putt on the 17th's famous island green to raise a smile.

"It wasn't my best tee-shot in terms of the line and I didn't make a whole bunch of putts today but it's always nice to birdie 17," he said.

"It's going to be strange without supporters the rest of the week. It was even a little surreal out there this morning."

McDowell slipped out of the world's top 50 to 51st last week after finishing in a tie for 32nd in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

As a result, a good finish in this week's unofficial 'fifth Major' could yield huge rewards, as he faces a challenge to edge his way back inside the top 50 at the end of the month in order to book his place at the year's first proper Major, The Masters, should it go ahead amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Rory McIlroy teed off at 5.51pm yesterday as he began his attempt to become the first man to successfully defend the Players Championship title.

Belfast Telegraph