ORLANDO, FLORIDA (AP) – Rory McIlroy has a traditional cardigan sweater in his closet that is deep crimson, scratchy, and so unique.
It’s identical to the one worn by Arnold Palmer, but when McIlroy won Palmer’s namesake tournament in 2018, the King wasn’t present to help him put it on. Palmer had passed away two years prior, in 2016. That was a year after McIlroy had received the “Arnie” treatment in his maiden appearance at Bay Hill, which included a two-and-a-half-hour supper with the host on the night of the first round.
McIlroy and Palmer spoke business, life, and family during that supper, and the King even persuaded the passionately fit Northern Irishman to have a banana split. McIlroy remarked at the time, “I’ll be going to the gym this afternoon.”
McIlroy tied for 11th place in his first appearance at Bay Hill and tied for 27th the following year. Rory’s situation at Arnie’s Place has only improved since then. He hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since 2016, and courtesy to an eagle and six birdies on Thursday, he was back in contention with a 7-under 65 and a two-shot lead.
Palmer and McIlroy, according to legend, did not discuss course strategy during that dinner in 2015. Arnie would have found the game to be a foreign language because it had evolved so much. Besides, it’s impossible to say with any certainty why Rory and Bay Hill are such a perfect match even now.
On Thursday, it was McIlroy’s play on the longer holes that made the difference.
His driver, according to statistics, is what makes him a perennial favorite in Orlando. When he finished his round, he was first in strokes gained: off the tee and fourth in driving distance.
“There’s no one better in the world than Rory when he’s on with his driver,” countryman Graeme McDowell, who opened in 68, remarked. “You have the potential to bring this course to a halt. If you drive it well here, it will come to a halt, but just slightly. He appears to be at ease in this environment.”
But that’s true of most of the courses McIlroy visits, and it feels like a gross simplification.
“That’s maybe a little one-dimensional, just to say he drives it well around here,” Adam Scott, who was paired with McIlroy on Thursday, said. “He drove it well today, but I felt his speed and putting were particularly impressive.” To get to 7 under around here, you’ll have to hole a few putts.”
To Scott’s point, McIlroy was 13th in the field in strokes gained: putting, albeit the fact that he didn’t make a single three-putt on Day 1 is arguably more telling.
While McIlroy dutifully addressed questions from the media after his round, swing coach Sean Foley, who does not coach McIlroy, sat to the side. He explained that he’d been watching Rory warm up and marveling at each soaring long-iron shot with a chuckle and keen attention. It was poetry for someone with Foley’s pedigree, and one of the essential elements that distinguishes world-class players.
“From 239 yards to 30 feet, I hit a 4-iron into 12 and a 4-iron into 6 [from 247 yards to 41 feet].” McIlroy noted, “They were definitely two of the best long irons I’ve hit in a long time.” “I know my swing is in good shape when I start hitting long irons like that.” “Seeing shots like that gives me a lot of confidence.”
Perhaps it’s that extra confidence, gained from a traumatic near-miss at the Dubai Desert Classic in January, that makes McIlroy such an intimidating figure this week. With a month to think about it, he may admit that Dubai was a mistake.
“With my experience and the tournaments I’ve finished in my career, I think you should win that if you’re two up with five to play,” he added.
But he didn’t look like a man trying to get over a tough loss as he distanced himself from the field at Bay Hill on Thursday – whether it was because of his all-world driving, majestic long-iron play, improved putting, or a combination of all three – he didn’t look like a man trying to get over a tough loss.
“I was doing OK, up to 5 [under], when I looked up and saw he was at 6 [under].” McDowell sighed. “Of course he’s six,” he reasoned.
McIlroy appeared at Arnie’s Standing as a man at comfortable with himself and his place in the game. In a scratchy red cardigan, a guy who appears entirely at ease.