ORLANDO, Fla. — Rory McIlroy watched Tiger Woods make mincemeat of the par 5s at Bay Hill on his way to a record eight wins at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
To capture his second API in four years and end a 16-month stretch without a victory, McIlroy aims to ride the momentum of a masterful opening round by following Woods’ winning formula.
“The way he played this course was, he played it very conservatively, he took care of the par 5s,” McIlroy said. “That was usually good enough to get the job done. So, sort of take a little bit of a leaf out of his book.”
McIlroy went off script during Thursday’s six-under par 66, a stretch of 18 holes he called the “best round I’ve played this year” that left him tied with Canadian Corey Conners and a shot clear of reigning U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau.
McIlroy carded birdies on three of four par 3s at Bay Hill. A 2 on the testy 221-yard 2nd hole featured a 55-foot putt, igniting a run of five straight birdies by the 31-year-old former world No. 1.
McIlroy called his sudden command of the par 3s “quite a turnaround” from his performance during the WGC-Workday at The Concession in Bradenton. This past Sunday, McIlroy bogeyed three of them en route to a lackluster 1-under par 71 to finish six shots behind winner Collin Morikawa.
All aspects of McIlroy’s game were on point much of Thursday’s opening round at Bay Hill. A sloppy bogey following a flubbed chip on the par-4 18th hole was the only obvious blemish on a scorecard featuring seven birdies and McIlroy’s one failed up-and-down attempt in five tries on the day.
But McIlroy, who started his round on the 10th hole, stumbled out of the gates and was fighting his swing during chilly, breezy morning conditions.
The world’s eighth-ranked player missed two of his first three fairways, including on the par-5 12th hole leading to a disappointing par. But a birdie on the 210-yard par-3 14th settled him down.
“I played well after that,” McIlroy said. “Hit some really good shots, some good drives. I saw a lot of really positive signs out there today, which is really encouraging.”
McIlroy hopes the API serves again as a panacea for what ails his game.
McIlroy’s 2018 victory in the event ended an 18-month winless stretch on the PGA Tour. In 2019, he then went on to win four times and reestablish himself as one of the alpha dogs on Tour.
Early last year, McIlroy returned to the top spot in the world rankings.
Few on Tour, though, lost their way more during the pandemic-ravaged 2020 season. A golfer who lives on Sunday leaderboards, McIlroy endured an eight-tournament stretch where he finished outside the top 10.
One of the game’s biggest draws admitted the absence of fans at tournaments undermined his focus and intensity level at times.
The API is allowing 5,000 fans on the grounds, or about 25% of normal capacity. Many are sure to be on the heels of McIlroy as he pushes to get off the schneid.
DeChambeau also will draw plenty of eyeballs during the coming days, especially at the par-5 6th hole. The severe dogleg left wraps around a big lake, making the distance from tee to green in the 350-yard range — or well within DeChambeau’s wheelhouse.
“If it’s more downwind,” he said, “I’ll be able to do it tomorrow, hopefully, or some time during the weekend.”
Told of DeChambeau’s plan, McIlroy, himself one of the longest hitters on Tour, said he’d stick to his own game plan.
“No chance,” McIlroy said.
Based on the opening 18 holes, a good chance exists the two bashers could go toe-to-toe during the weekend.
DeChambeau has some unfinished business at Bay Hill with McIlroy.
A closing birdie during the final round in 2016 allowed McIlroy to card a 65 and nip a 22-year-old DeChambeau, then an amateur, by a shot in their high-profile pairing. McIlroy’s 2018 win then came at the expense of DeChambeau, who trailed by just a shot with two holes remaining but ended the week three back.
Now 27 and at least 40 pounds heavier, the hulking 6-foot-1, 245-pound DeChambeau is a major champion and among the favorites whenever he tees it up. On Thursday, he showed why, hitting 11 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens on his way to an opening 67.
A missed four-foot par putt on the 11th hole was DeChambeau’s only significant misstep.
“Haven’t done that in a long time and I guess I was due for it, I don’t know,” he said.
DeChambeau also was due for a fast start following opening rounds of 77 and 75 during two events in February.
Entering Friday’s second round at Bay Hill, 28 players are within four shots of the lead. But McIlroy has finished no worse than sixth during his last four APIs, making him the man everyone is chasing.
“I’ve always felt comfortable here,” he said.