McIlroy and Fleetwood lead veterans Jim Furyk (64) and Ian Poulter (66), as well as Brian Harman (69) and reigning Australian Open victor Abraham Ancer (66).
He traded a birdie and a bogey on the sixth and seventh holes, and then rattled off five birdies over an eight-hole stretch starting at the ninth. "It was probably the most hard shot I had all day", he admitted. "Oh yes, I'm going to be celebrating this", he laughed.
McIlroy says he has been reading books and working with people to remind himself that golf is a joy to play and provides a comfortable lifestyle - he went over $45 million in career PGA Tour earnings alone - but that it doesn't define him as a person. But that analytical response speaks to the maturity of the 29 year old, who ended an increasingly frustrating run of near misses with this win.
Not since 2012 has McIlroy started a year so well.
McIlroy hurt his own chances with a double-bogey at the fourth hole.
Fleetwood took his good swing from the range to the course and watched it pay off with a birdie-eagle-birdie start that carried him to a 67.
Rory McIlroy putts on the 17th green during the final round of THE PLAYERS Championship golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass - Stadium Course.
After a birdie at the par-four 15th, he used his power to reach the par-five 16th in two shots and a two-putt birdie gave him the lead. Even on the par-5 16th, he tried a low runner out of the pine trees and it came out so hot that it ran through the green and into the water.
Even so, he was bogey-free over the last 16 holes and shot 70. "I was trying to land it like 10 yards on the green just right of the hazard, and if it had have been just that little further right, it would have probably landed in a good spot, but it just came out a little bit left".
As for the approach to this year's tournament, McIlroy noted the same thing is true every weekend at the PGA Tour.
When co-leader Jon Rahm made the turn at 14-under and tied with Furyk, a staggering 21 golfers were within four shots of the lead. He holed a 30-foot birdie putt on No 8 after McIlroy tapped in for his birdie, and then picked up four birdies where they were available for his 70.
Day shot an even-par 72 on the day without ever really hitting his best, while Scott was up and running early before he hit two water balls on the back nine, taking bogey at two par-fives.
"It was just a grind, " he said. I'm not putting myself under pressure to. again, winning is a byproduct of doing all the things that I'm doing well.
It helped secure the par he needed to settle what was an absolute classic Players.
Jason Day had a 68 and was three shots behind. "But I wasn't making a lot of 8- to 20-footers for birdie, or even better yet, I didn't think I was hitting quality putts and giving enough of those putts a chance to go in".
It wasn't easy. And late Sunday, The Players was up for grabs. He shot 73 and tied for fifth with Brandt Snedeker (69) and Dustin Johnson (69). This moved Rahm to 1 over for the round.
By the end of the day, his 64 was about as high as it could have been. It was there that he propelled a sensational 180-yard six-iron bunker shot to set up a crucial bounce-back birdie.
No matter. He was in the lead, facing a Sunday (Monday NZT) pairing with Fleetwood as he goes for the most important win of his young career.
If Rahm was in the zone, McIlroy was in damage control mode.
It figures to be a mental test as much as anything he does with his irons.
Rory McIlroy has slammed the pace of play on the PGA Tour.
"It was a year of personal growth rather than golf game", Rahm said. "It's stuff you don't think is affecting you, but it could get in there".
"Maybe, if this had not gone the way I wanted it to, it might have eaten away at me", McIlroy told me.
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