McIlroy hits the front with sparkling 66 at Bay Hill

Bernie McGuire
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McIlroy hits the front with sparkling 66 at Bay Hill

Rory McIlroy (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Rory McIlroy brought his putter along for the ride in taking Route 66 to muscle his way to a share of the lead on day one of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

McIlroy, winner of the event in 2018, sensationally capped his round with five birdies in succession from his 11th hole to 15th holes of his round in bright but cool morning conditions on the famed Bay Hill course in suburban Orlando. He was joined late in the day by Canadian Corey Connors at six-under while big-hitting Bryson DeChambeau was just a shot back with a 67.

The World No. 8 ranked McIlroy began his five birdies in succession run holing a whopping 56-footer at the par-4 second hole on the scorecard, a 23-footer at the next, two putts from 40-feet at his 13th, four-feet on his 14th and then ending the birdie blitz in sending a 26-footer to the bottom of the cup at the par-4 sixth or the 15th hole of his round.

That’s 111-feet or 38.9 metres of birdie putts in a total of just seven putts, and after averaging some 30 putts last week on the west coast of Florida, McIlroy officially recorded just 26 putts. Of those 26 putts, McIlroy had 11 one putts and also helping his round was finding 14 of 18 Bay Hill greens in regulation, including finding all greens in regulation over his inward half. One of those clearly delighted was McIlroy’s father, Gerry, walking with a limited number of spectators allowed into the €7.6m event.

“It was good. It wasn’t like that quick, obviously in total the 66 is a great way to start the tournament, but the first few holes were a little slow going and I made a really good birdie on 14 and that sort of got the round going,” said McIlroy.

“The two 2s on the back nine or my front nine were great. Coming off last week where I really struggled on the par-3s, today I played them in 3-under par, so quite a turnaround. But, yeah, I played well after that and hit some really good shots, some good drives, I saw a lot of really positive signs out there today which is really encouraging.”

There was just one bogey; McIlroy showing the first visible signs of the frustration that has dogged him in recent weeks evident in playing the 18th or the ninth hole of his round. McIlroy was to the right front of the green and just over 40-feet to the flag when he chipped his third shot 10-feet past the flag and showed his disappointment by slamming his club into the ground. And then in missing his par putt, McIlroy back-handed his ball into the water in holing out for a bogey ‘5’.

In the bigger 18-hole picture, it was McIlroy close to his best, and wasn’t the man himself pleased.

“I’ve always felt comfortable here,” McIlroy added. “I saw a statistic the other day that this course more than any other one the PGA Tour the correlation between strokes gained off the tee and performance at this course is higher than anywhere else.

“Myself and Bryson are No. 1 and 2 in ‘strokes gained off the tee’ for the season and we both shot two good scores today. It’s one of these places where there’s a lot of holes where everyone just hits it in the same spots off the tee, but then when you can give yourself an advantage by taking driver and getting it up there like on No.3 and No.6 whereas some of the shorter guys are having to go up the sliver of fairway up the right when longer guys don’t have to really worry about that.

“So, I would say this is pretty much my best round of the year. I opened up with 64 in Abu Dhabi, which was really good, but I just think with what I’ve been working on over the last few weeks it’s just started to feel a little more comfortable today, which was nice to see.”

McIlroy is contesting the opening two rounds alongside fellow Europeans and fellow Arnold Palmer winners Francesco Molinari and Tyrrell Hatton, and finished way ahead of the duo. Defending champion Hatton had just one birdie in a five-over par 77 while 2019 winner Molinari had just two birdies and finished bogey, double-bogey in a horror 78 to be lying 117th in the 123-player field.

Europe’s Ryder Cup Captain, Padraig Harrington showed more signs of his recent good form in a two-under par opening 70 to sit next best of the Irish. Harrington birdied three of the four par-5’s on his way to a share of 15th overnight, however the news wasn’t so good for Ryder Cup hopeful Shane Lowry who posted two birdies, three bogeys and a double in an opening 75. Graeme McDowell completed the Irish scoring with a seven-over par 79.

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