Rory McIlroy trails Kurt Kitayama by three shots after he carded a bogey-free 68 to climb into contention on moving day of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
McIlroy once again capitalised on the par fives as he registered four birdies in a round that exuded patience with the Holywood native ranking 4th in strokes gained tee to green on Saturday which laid the foundation for a clean card.
Birdies on three of the par fives at 4, 6, 16 and a birdie on the tenth saw McIlroy climb to six-under par and into a share of fifth place. Although he held out well for pars throughout his round he did see a good birdie chance go begging on 18.
“Yeah, it was good. I think any time you can go bogey-free on the weekend at Bay Hill you’re doing something right,” explained McIlroy. “A little frustrated I missed that opportunity at the last. But all in all played really well. I got myself right into the tournament, into the thick of things for tomorrow.
“Limit the mistakes out here. If you can hit fairways and greens and take advantage of the par-5s that’s basically what I did today. And then have a really good short game. I up-and-downed it really well this week, chipped it well, bunker play has been good. Holed out well for the most part. So just do sort of everything well and then when one aspect of your game since firing on all cylinders you have to rely on other things.”
The four-time major winner has done well to not shoot himself out of contention following an opening round of 73 and a marked rise of 60 places in strokes gained tee to green has paid dividends.
“I hit some balls on Thursday night and sort of, yeah, my alignment was getting a little bit off. Especially I feel like when you play in the wind like this it can do that. But I noticed it in L.A. as well, my lines were getting crossed, my feet were getting closed, my shoulders were getting open. So just sort of trying to work on my alignment a little bit. But definitely hit it better the last couple days.”
There was drama at the top all day with a host of star names jostling for position. Former world number one, Scottie Scheffler birdied his last three holes to appear from nowhere with a 68 to lie in second on eight-under alongside Viktor Hovland who was sensational in his 66.
2020 champion Tyrrell Hatton is a shot further back in fourth after a sublime 66 of his own.
However, it’s the gutsy level-par 72 of leader Kitayama that might prove to be the best of the lot on Sunday evening.
The two-time DP World Tour winner teed off with a two-shot 36-hole lead and quickly saw that disappear with a double-bogey seven on the 4th before a dropped shot on 9 looked to have knocked the wind from his sails.
To Kitayama’s credit he rallied and showed his class with two birdies in three holes to start his back nine. A rather clumsy bogey on the 14th did little to halt his momentum and two birdies in his last three holes including a 16-footer on the 18th saw him return to the summit on nine-under as he looks to cling onto a one shot lead on Sunday for his maiden PGA Tour title.
The 30-year-old was proud of how he dug in.
“Just proud of the way I fought. Started off fairly solid first three holes and then one loose swing and I’m 2-over. Then got some uncomfortable shots coming in on that front nine. Bogey on 9. It’s just tough.
“But making that birdie, that putt on 10, that helped calm things down. Then a good drive on 12. Really proud of how I was able to fight back to even.
“I just feel like I’ve always grinded, no matter what I’m doing. Even just practice, trying to get better. Always been putting in the time. So I owe it to myself to, even when you get off to a rocky start, to keep fighting.”
The American has been in fine form this season and broke into the top-50 for the first time after pushing McIlroy all the way at the CJ Cup. Since then he has maintained his ranking but he knows he is the rank outsider amongst all the top dogs.
“Yeah, I think you just kind of accept it. You just look at the leaderboard, the rankings and what they have done. People probably cheering for them louder, you know. So there’s nothing I can do. Just embrace it.”
Pádraig Harrington might wonder where he might stand heading into Sunday had it not been for some poor finishing holes. The Dubliner double-bogeyed the 18th hole to drop back to a share of 31st place on one-under after a level-par 72.
The three-time major champion has played the last three holes in each round in a combined four-over-par.
Seamus Power and Shane Lowry are in a share of second last position on six-over after rounds of 76 ad 80 respectively.
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