Northern Irishman takes conservative approach at Arnold Palmer Invitational as 66 shares 1st-round lead with Corey Conners
It consists of playing safely off the tee and attacking the par 5s. In other words, try to emulate what Tiger Woods did for so many years. As an eight-time champion of “The Arnie,” Woods has set the competitive standard for Bay Hill.
“You don't have to do anything special to shoot a good score here,” McIlroy said understatedly Thursday after he shot 6-under 66 to share the lead with Corey Conners. “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.
“But 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.”
Woods is recuperating in a Los Angeles hospital after two rounds of surgery on his shattered right leg, resulting from his single-vehicle rollover crash Feb. 23. McIlroy has posted four top-six finishes in his past four starts at Bay Hill, including a victory in 2018. He appears to be headed toward another strong result at the late Arnold Palmer’s longtime winter playground (scores).
McIlroy ran off five consecutive birdies on his second nine, at Nos. 2-6, after starting on the back side on a crisp, sunny morning before the day warmed into the mid-70s. The run was sparked by a 56-foot bomb on the par-3 second hole. His lone blemish was a bogey at the par-4 18th, his ninth hole, when he failed to save par from in front of the green.
“The two 2s on the back nine were great,” McIlroy said. “Coming off last week, where I really struggled on the par 3s [in a T-6 at the WGC Workday at Concession], and today I played them in 3 under par, so quite a turnaround.”
McIlroy, 31, is a four-time major champion from Northern Ireland who is seeking his first victory since winning the HSBC Champions in late 2019. He was handed a share of the first-round lead when Conners three-putted from 60 feet on his final hole, the par-4 ninth, for bogey. The 29-year-old Canadian, whose lone PGA Tour victory came at the 2019 Texas Open, birdied his first three holes and surged to 6 under through seven holes with a 6-foot eagle putt at the par-5 16th.
Conners, who ranks 60th in the world, is making only his fourth start of the year and the first since a missed cut two weeks ago at the Genesis Invitational.
“I just had a little more rest leading up to the event this year and had a week at home last week, so feeling fresher coming in here,” said Conners, who missed cuts in his two previous Bay Hill appearances. “Definitely excited to have a good start and excited for the rest of the week.”
American Bryson DeChambeau held solo third place at 67. American Jason Kokrak shared fourth place with South Korea’s Byeong Hun An and Colombia's Sebastian Munoz at 68.
Norway's Viktor Hovland, perhaps the game's hottest player entering the week, shot 69.
American Jordan Spieth continued his resurgence with a 2-under 70.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington won round 1 of the matchup of Ryder Cup captains, shooting 70 to edge American counterpart Steve Stricker by two strokes.
Defending champion Tyrrell Hatton of England struggled to a 77.
The $9.3 million event, which will pay $1.674 million to the winner, is the second of four stops on the monthlong Florida Swing.
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