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Rory McIlroy explains aggressive game-plan that has him is position for Players Championship title tilt

 

On form: Rory McIlroy blasts into contention at Sawgrass yesterday, just two behind leader
Tommy Fleetwood
On form: Rory McIlroy blasts into contention at Sawgrass yesterday, just two behind leader Tommy Fleetwood

By Phil Casey

Rory McIlroy is just two shots off the overnight lead at the Players Championship in Florida after a strong opening round at TPC Sawgrass.

The World No.6 shot a first round five-under par 67 to leave him a couple of shots adrift of leaders Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley.

McIlroy was flawless in his performance, dropping no shots on his way to the 67, however he will be frustrated that perhaps he was not one or two shots better off.

But the Ulsterman has put himself in a strong position to make a charge for his first title since March last year, continuing the fine form that has seen him record top-six finishes in all five of his starts this season so far.

McIlroy was frustrated not to birdie the par-five ninth, his final hole, after his approach hit a sprinkler head and flew over the green into the crowd.

But he reflected on a positive round afterwards and admitted he was happy with the change in date from May to March, which means the conditions are more conducive to aggressive play.

"Over the last 10 years it's been irons off tees and really trying to plot your way around the golf course. I hit drivers on holes today where I would never have the last few years," McIlroy said.

"Even when you are aggressive and you miss, it's a touch easier to get yourself back into position," he added.

"The rough isn't as long or as gnarly and when you miss the greens you are not having to contend with that Bermuda (grass) and guess how it's going to come out."

Meanwhile, Fleetwood passed the "ultimate test in golf" with flying colours on the opening day.

The Englishman birdied six of his last nine holes in an inward half of 30, just one shot outside the tournament record, to set an imposing clubhouse target of seven-under-par and enjoy a one-shot lead over Korea's Ben An and American Brian Harman alongside former PGA Championship winner Bradley.

Fleetwood started from the 10th and managed just one birdie in his first nine holes, but then picked up shots on the first, second and fifth and finished with a hat-trick of birdies from the seventh.

"I played really well all day apart from I hit a poor tee shot on 14 and got away with it," Fleetwood said.

"And then on 16, the par five, I hit a poor second and I was a bit frustrated at that point because I had a lot of chances from 15 feet and didn't make any. It just shows you, stay patient and things can happen.

"The course doesn't make you feel very comfortable at all, you are always a semi-bad shot from struggling to make par. It's one of the courses that's the ultimate test in golf.

"I've played well here in the past and if I drive it well that's a massive key for me. Driving is a strength for me normally and if you put it in play all the time in general you have a big advantage."

Fleetwood finished seventh at Sawgrass last year and third in the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday, when Francesco Molinari stormed through the field to win his second PGA Tour title.

"I'm trying to keep up," Fleetwood joked. "It's hard these days but I'm trying my best. It's clearly the next step for me to win over here but winning's not easy and I've got to keep plodding away, do the right things and focus on myself.

"It's a good time to be coming into form. It's been different this year because I've been used to starting so fast but I feel like I've been doing a lot of good things and sometimes you just need a rhythm of shooting good scores and that seems like it's coming."

Tiger Woods was among the later starters, with the former World No.1 finishing his round strongly to card a three-under-par 69.

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