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Rory McIlroy proud to follow in Arnie’s footsteps at Bay Hill

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Rory McIlroy proud to follow in Arnie’s footsteps at Bay Hill

Past Arnold Palmer Invitational champ is an annual fixture in Orlando

    Written by Jeff Babineau @JeffBabz62

    ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy is a well-read man, and he likes to tell people that he knows “a little about a lot.” On golf, on business matters of the PGA TOUR, and even about the golf course at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, home to this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, he could hold an advanced doctorate.

    It took McIlroy some time to get to Arnie’s Place, but once he visited, played, soaked in the meaning and was able to spend some quality time with the tournament namesake before Palmer’s passing in 2016, he was sold on everything about it.

    Course conditions the past few years have been firm, dry and windy – it’s a little softer so far this March – and Bay Hill can be an intimidator, the way that Palmer always wanted it. But the mop-haired McIlroy, now 32, just seems to whistle along at this venue. For him, the course is one in which he can stay within himself, take care of the friendly par 5s, play smartly on the tougher holes and more often than not produce a good score. Seven times in seven years he has fired 66 or better, including a final-round 64 in 2018, when he won.

    McIlroy has finished T11 or better in six of his seven visits. His winning total of 16-under 270 in ’18 stands as the lowest 72-hole score at Bay Hill since 2015. With his trophy and winner’s share ($1.6 million then, $2.16 million this week, along with 550 FedEx Cup points) came the champion’s red cardigan sweater, a nod to Palmer’s fashionable side. It remains a treasured piece of McIlroy's “trophy” collection.

    “I haven’t broken it out since then – it’s a little scratchy and wouldn’t be comfortable on the skin,” McIlroy said of the alpaca sweater. “The tradition, the cardigan, I think it’s one of the coolest trophies that we have in golf. I wish Arnold would have been around to be with me on the 18th green then. That would have been the icing on the cake.”

    McIlroy, a 20-time PGA TOUR winner who is ranked fifth in the world, does not have much in terms of a sample size to his 2021-22 season. That will change soon with a handful of bigger events looming, starting with the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard and THE PLAYERS Championship next week, and running up toward the Masters, the lone major standing between him and the Career Grand Slam. His two official PGA TOUR starts this season include a victory at THE CJ CUP @ SUMMIT, and a tie for 10th at The Genesis Invitational two weeks ago, where he shot 67-68 on the weekend.

    His reunion with his longtime swing coach, Michael Bannon, after the two were apart for most of 2021, has led to McIlroy being more cognizant of what his left arm is doing in his backswing, and he has tried to become more “neutral” at the top. That’s the golfspeak of his world. More simply, he wants to contend more often and regain the uber-confidence that made him world No. 1. He aims to become more consistent, and to win major championships again. Major No. 4 (his last) was at the PGA Championship in the summer of 2014, a considerable drought. He has won two FedExCups and THE PLAYERS since, but his Career Grand Slam quest continues.

    “I've driven the ball pretty well,” McIlroy said. “I've seen a bit of improvement in iron play. My short game's been really good. If anything, just getting the consistency to a point where I feel like I can play like that day in and day out. But the game feels good, so just sort of trying to keep doing what I'm doing.”

    On Wednesday afternoon, after his pro-am and a few media obligations, McIlroy was headed to the chipping area next to the practice green behind the Bay Hill clubhouse, where pictures of Palmer adorn the walls. This year’s course setup at API includes replacing some of the tightly-mown runoff areas near the green complexes with thick rough. Greens can be hard to hit at Bay Hill; McIlroy said the new setup “is definitely a different test than the one in previous years.”

    McIlroy had shared his Bay Hill game plan with world No. 1 Jon Rahm, who is here for the first time. He told Rahm how he could play conservatively as long as he attacks on the par 5s. Rahm could hit iron off the tee at the par-4 10th, for instance, and maybe on a few other holes, McIlroy advised. The two stood together on the tee at Bay Hill’s par-5 sixth because of a backup on Wednesday.

    Rahm: “I said, Rory, where are the irons? I’m hitting driver on every single hole!” (Later, Rahm would add, “It’s a great golf course. I can see why Tiger won so many times here.”)

    In McIlroy’s group on Wednesday was former Major League Baseball knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who showed off a World Series ring to the group. Wakefield is a pretty decent golfer. When he received a call on Tuesday night that informing him of the pairing, he immediately phoned his wife, very excited, much the way a 10-year-old kid might. “HEY, GUESS WHO I’M PLAYING WITH TOMORROW!!!” he started.

    “Impressive,” was the word that Wakefield kept using to describe McIlroy after their round. Wakefield was asked if he was surprised that so much power can be generated by a player so relatively small in stature – McIlroy is 5 feet 10, and weighs 160 pounds, but was second on TOUR in Driving Distance last season (319.3 yards). He wasn’t.

    “He knows how to generate the power with what he has,” Wakefield said. “I’ve pitched against guys his size who hit homers a long ways. It’s all a matter of timing, and how he does it.”

    McIlroy’s emergence as a marquee regular at Arnie’s Place has been about great timing, too. He will be a crowd favorite this week, a thoughtful player with boatloads of charisma. (Sound familiar?) McIlroy is glad he is here. He gets it. The meaning of the week, and Arnold Palmer, isn’t lost on him. He’d absolutely love another one of those itchy red sweaters.

    “We all know what Arnold Palmer means to the PGA TOUR, and to the game of golf in general,” McIlroy said. “So, it's always nice to be here and try to sort of remember his legacy, and remember what he meant to everyone. He was probably the catalyst with maybe a few other guys of why we're here today, and why the game of professional golf is at such a high level.”

    At Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy knows a lot about a lot.

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