Matsuyama has crowds roaring but winner will hear only silence

PGA decides that last three days at The Players will be played without spectators

For one day only, the roars of the galleries greeted shot-making at The Players.

For the next three days at the TPC Sawgrass outside Jacksonville in Florida – where Japan's Hideki Matsuyama assumed the first round clubhouse lead with a stunning nine-under-par 63 – any brilliance will be met with nothing but silence after the PGA Tour belatedly moved to contain any impact of the Covid-19 virus.

In advance of the tournament, with its $15 purse and status as one of the most coveted titles in golf, the PGA Tour had anticipated “record crowds” over the four tournament days only to make a dramatic change that will see no spectators allowed from Friday’s second round onwards right up to the end of the Valero Texas Open.

That move will see the remainder of the Players along with next week’s Valspar, the following week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Matchplay and the Valero Texas Open all played behind closed doors.

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A decision on whether spectators will be allowed into next month's US Masters at Augusta National has yet to be made.

The impact of the coronavirus was made before a ball was hit in anger, when South Korean CT Pan, critical of the tour’s approach on the coronavirus compared to the stance taken by other sporting organisations, withdrew from the event.

“I’m probably the only one who is not playing, same number as the hand sanitizers in the clubhouse, locker and dining,” he posted on social media.

The tournament did actually get under way, with Matsuyama equalling the Stadium Course record with a nine-under-par 63 that saw him register eight birdies and an eagle against a single bogey, playing his final five holes in five-under after finishing his round with a monster eagle putt.

Graeme McDowell, who has so far struggled to transform the form of his Saudi International winning performance to events stateside, had an impressive opening round of four-under-par 68 that saw the Irishman hit a hot streak on the back nine.

That included five birdies: a hat-trick from the 10th and then a birdie on the 16th followed by a 30-footer on the 17th. His only bogey came on the second, as McDowell maintains his bid to claim a top-50 world ranking ahead of the Masters.

Poor start

Starting his round on the 10th, Shane Lowry – who skipped last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational – reached the turn on one-under, his only birdie coming on the Par 5 16th where he rolled in a six-footer. Lowry slipped back to level par on his round with a bogey on the first, where he three-putted from 35 feet.

Rory McIlroy’s defence of his title got off to a poor start when he bogeyed the first, following a wild drive and then hitting his approach into a greenside bunker.

Having birdied the Par 5 sixth, he suffered back-to-back bogeys on the eighth and the ninth, both after poor drives into the right rough.

The world number one did manage to hit back with a birdie from nine feet on the Par 3 13th hole but the respite was short-lived as he double bogeyed the 15th to drop to three over.

For Japan's Matsuyama, it proved to be a productive opening round as he opened up a two stroke lead over American Harris English and South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout.

Matsuyama, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour but without a win since the 2017 Bridgestone Invitational, continued a recent return to form that had seen him finished tied-16th or better in nine of his 11 worldwide starts since October.

“I’ve been working hard and have a lot of confidence in my swing. I made some putts and that seems to be the difference of late,” said the 28-year-old.

Referring to the fact that the final three rounds would be played behind closed doors with no spectators, Matsuyama admitted it would be a different dynamic for players to adjust to. “You hit a good shot or make a good putt, the crowd reaction kind of gets you going. It’s probably going to be strange for us, but it is still golf. We’ll just go out and play our best.”