Rory McIlroy starts strong, Jordan Spieth builds on momentum at Bay Hill
March 04, 2021
By Jeff Babineau, PGATOUR.COM
- March 04, 2021
Rory McIlroy’s Round 1 highlights from Arnold Palmer
ORLANDO, Fla. – For all its aesthetic beauty, the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, in its 43rd year serving as host to the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, can be a real nag. Lots of wind, plenty of water, thick patches of lush green rough … for golfers not hitting the golf ball on a string, Bay Hill can be a scary alley to travel.
Just don’t tell Rory McIlroy. At Bay Hill, he is the carefree kid, hands stuck in his pockets, whistling past the graveyard. Thursday, McIlroy, the event’s 2018 champion, stepped out to a 6-under 66 while barely breaking a sweat. He is tied for the lead alongside Canada’s Corey Conners, who reached 7 under but three-putted his final hole.
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It was a good day for a handful of the big dogs at Arnie’s Place. Bryson DeChambeau, who has a pair of top-5 finishes at the API, shot 67. Jordan Spieth, trying to build on the momentum of three solid starts on the West Coast, and trying to win for the first time since 2017, made his Bay Hill debut a solid one, shooting 70.
For Spieth, everything about Bay Hill is untrodden, and fresh, and exciting. He looked like a newly minted college grad at his first job interview, making sure to pay attention to every little detail.
“Actually, I really enjoyed kind of going out there and being like, ‘Wow’ ... I found myself more focused in the practice rounds,” Spieth said. “I found it to be a breath of fresh air, and a little bit exciting, for sure. Especially on a tough golf course, right? There’s a lot to figure out.”
If there’s anything he cannot solve, McIlroy would be the man on campus to ask. Bay Hill has become one of his honey spots. McIlroy is not yet into Tiger Woods territory – Woods won eight times at Bay Hill (nine if you count the 1991 U.S. Junior Amateur) – but he settles into this place each March with all the ease of a burley man sinking into a soft leather couch. He hasn’t finished worse than sixth in his last four starts at the API, and never has finished worse than T27.
McIlroy saw a stat the other day that showed a high correlation at Bay Hill between players ranked highly in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee and and those who have success at the tournament. Care to guess who is 1 and 2 in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee these days? DeChambeau is 1; McIlroy is right behind him.
If they had rankings for comfort level at Arnie’s Place – Tiger notwithstanding – McIlroy would be the clear-cut No. 1. That’s the way it has been since his very first visit. He now has played 25 rounds at Bay Hill; Thursday was the ninth time he shot 67 or lower.
“I feel like you don't have to do anything special to shoot a good score here,” McIlroy said. “You can be really conservative off the tees if you want to be. There's a bunch of irons that you can hit off tees. Take care of the par 5s … I think the toughest thing about this course is the par 3s, and I played them in 3 under today. So that was a bonus.”
“I've watched Tiger enough here over the years and the way he played this course was, he played it very conservatively, he took care of the par 5s, and that was usually good enough to get the job done. So sort of take a little bit of a leaf out of his book.”
That would be a pretty good book from which to borrow.
McIlroy made five consecutive birdies beginning at No. 2 on his second nine, but the highlight of his round were the deuces he made at 14 (215 yards) and 17 (221 yards). Both tee shots played into the wind, and McIlroy flighted down 5-irons on each. Crisp strikes. Both putts were in the 15-foot range, and he knocked them down.
Rory McIlroy sinks 55-footer for birdie at Arnold Palmer
McIlroy was the hottest player on the planet up until the COVID-19 pandemic intervened a year ago, but he has not won since the 2019 WGC-HSBC Championship in China. Still, with the exception of missing the weekend at The Genesis Invitational at Riviera, a rarity, McIlroy has shown solid results (10 top 10s in his last 23 starts) and consistency in his game. He is what TOUR players would term “close.”
Consistency is something Spieth continues to seek as he climbs back from a three-year winless swoon. An 11-time winner (three of them majors) by age 24, Spieth, now 27, has shown promising signs of late. He tied for fourth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open; was T3 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am; and ran 15th at Genesis.
Spieth was rolling along nicely at 3 under before he followed a bogey at the short fifth with a toe-hook drive that didn’t clear the lake on the par-5 sixth. Golfer axiom: It is never a good feeling to be standing 528 yards from the flagstick hitting 3. He would do well to make bogey, needing a 25-footer to secure it. In fact, late in his round, he was vintage Spieth on the greens: a 25-footer at 6; a 33-foot putt for birdie at No. 7; and a 20-footer at the 492-yard ninth, completing a par save from a bunker.
Spieth was satisfied with how he had rebounded from the poor drive at the sixth, but still bothered by the bad miscue. The sixth is no place to run into trouble, not when it was playing as second-easiest hole on the course, behind only the reachable 16th.
“I mean, once it's done, it's done, you can't go back,” Spieth said. “So you got to move forward. But then obviously, when the round is over, I'm just sitting there like, ‘What are you doing?’ you know? Like, you can birdie from anywhere. And I wasn't trying to force anything, it was just an execution error and really just a contact issue.”
For Spieth, it was a day to find positives, and take one more step forward. For McIlroy, it was just another day at Bay Hill. Sixty-six. Ho hum. Pass the popcorn.