ORLANDO – At Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club and Lodge, Rory McIlroy followed his approach flawlessly. On his way to a 7-under 65, he hit the fairways, holed a handful of putts, and shot 5 under par on the four par 5s.
“It felt as fantastic as it has in a long time,” he said of his performance.
On a course where McIlroy is a past champion (2018) and has the longest active top-10 streak in the competition, that was good enough to put him two strokes ahead of Beau Hossler and J.J. Spaun in the first round of the 2022 Arnold Palmer Invitational. Not nearly as impressive as Tiger Woods’ eight victories, but still respectable.
“It’s one of those courses where I don’t feel like I have to do anything extraordinary to contend,” McIlroy said on Wednesday. “I can play within myself,” you say. You’re in charge of the par-5s on this course. You play conservatively the rest of the way, especially given how the golf course has been laid out in recent years. You start by aiming for pars, then strive to make birdies on the par-5s and easier holes. If you keep doing that day after day, you’ll soon be near the top of the leaderboard.”
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McIlroy, who won the CJ Cup in October, said he set a goal of winning six times this year and said his game felt snappy after being tied for 10th at the Genesis Invitational after three rounds in the 60s. He highlighted that hitting more than 60% of his fairways (he hit 57.35 percent last season, which ranked No. 145 on Tour, while his rough proximity on approach shots rated No. 154) and improving his proximity inside 150 yards are two keys to more consistently finding the winner’s circle (he ranked No. 141 from 75-100 yards).
In Thursday, his tee game was on form, as he hit 15 of 18 fairways.
Graeme McDowell, who started with a 4-under 68, stated, “I think there’s no one better in the world with a driver than Rory.” “You have the ability to bring this course to a screeching halt. It won’t come to a complete halt if you drive it carefully here.”
“It’s easy to make any course look fairly straightforward from there when he hits it straight like he did today,” said Adam Scott, who was in McIlroy’s threesome and shot a 68.
McIlroy was particularly happy with his long iron play, highlighting two 4-irons he blasted on Nos. 6 and 12 to set for birdies.
“Those were definitely two of the best long irons I’ve hit in quite some time,” he remarked. “When I start hitting long irons like that, I know my swing is in fantastic shape.”
While Bay Hill rewards excellent driving, Scott felt McIlroy’s game was firing on all cylinders.
Scott noted, “His speed and putting were extremely good today.” “You’ll need to hit a couple putts to go to 7-under around here.” His entire game appeared to be excellent to me.”
McIlroy’s form on the greens has returned, including a 41-foot birdie putt at the par-5 16th hole, his biggest eagle putt on the Tour.
“No way,” McIlroy said when told of the achievement. “I was just trying to get it close up the hill with a 40-footer, and if it drops, that’s a bonus.”
McIlroy was first in Stroked Gains: Putting when he won the CJ Cup, and he was in the top ten in same category at the Genesis Invitational.
“I’ve actually really loved not having a green book,” McIlroy said of the pocket-sized publications with incredibly accurate photos of the putting surfaces that were banned at the start of the year. “It seemed to have made me more interested in putting… To be honest, I believe it has aided me in the last few weeks, which has been beneficial.”
It’s easy to see why Palmer’s winter retreat has always piqued McIlroy’s interest. McDowell, on the other hand, may have delivered the best reaction.
McDowell said, “I’m not sure.” “Isn’t he absolutely incredible?”