Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy made five consecutive birdies in his self-declared best round of the year to share the lead after Thursday’s start of the US PGA Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The 31-year-old from Northern Ireland fired a six-under par 66 at Bay Hill in Orlando to share the lead with Canada’s Corey Conners, one stroke ahead of reigning US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau. McIlroy, hoping to complete a career Grand Slam at next month’s Masters, opened on the back nine despite weeks of struggling with his swing birdied the second through sixth holes.
“It was good. The 66 is a great way to start the tournament,” McIlroy said. “Hit some really good shots, some good drives. “I saw a lot of really positive signs out there today, which was really encouraging.”
Conners, another back-nine starter, had four birdies and an eagle in his first seven holes but closed the front and back nines with bogeys, the last from seven feet, to settle for a share of the lead. “Did a lot of things well. I was off to a great start,” said Conners, who missed the cut in both prior Bay Hill starts but came in rested this time. “Was ready to go and felt good about my game. I get into ruts when I play too much golf, burn myself out mentally and physically. Been trying to manage my rest.”
McIlroy opened the year with a 64 at Abu Dhabi but said it wasn’t as good as his start at Bay Hill, where he won in 2018 and has top-six showings in his past four starts. “Pretty much, yeah,” McIlroy said when asked if Thursday was his best round of the year. “With what I’ve been working on over the last few weeks, it has just started to feel a little more comfortable today, which was nice to see.”
Eighth-ranked McIlroy, who shared fifth at last November’s Masters and sixth last week, can feel improvement with every round. “The nice thing is it’s feeling better and better basically every time I go out there on the golf course. I felt pretty good about it,” he said.
“I saw a lot of golf shots going in the window I was looking at today, so that gives me a lot of encouragement going forward.”
McIlroy, whose most recent major win came at the 2014 PGA Championship, sank a 13-foot birdie putt at the par-3 14th then holed a 14-footer at the par-3 17th before his lone bogey came at 18. “I made a really good birdie on 14 and that sort of got the round going,” McIlroy said. “The two 2s on the back nine were great... I played well after that.”
McIlroy rolled in a birdie putt from 56 feet at the par-3 second to launch his streak, followed with a 22-foot birdie putt and tapped in for birdie at the par-5 fourth after a 40-foot eagle miss. A great approach left him four feet to birdie the fifth and his run ended with a three-footer at the par-5 sixth after reaching the green in two.
McIlroy plans to borrow from Tiger Woods, an eight-time winner at Bay Hill, as he pushes for his first US PGA triumph since the 2019 WGC HSBC Champions at Shanghai.
“I’ve watched Tiger enough here over the years and the way he played this course was very conservatively,” McIlroy said.
“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.”
DeChambeau blasted a 351-yard drive at the eighth and had six birdies against a lone bogey.
“I was able to make a few putts when I needed to,” he said. “Was able to put the ball in the fairways. For the most part I felt pretty comfortable.”
Leading first-round scores
(USA unless noted, par-72)
66-Rory McIlroy (NIR), Corey Conners (CAN)
68-Jason Kokrak, An Byeong-hun (KOR), Sebastian Munoz (COL)
69-Victor Perez (FRA), Martin Laird (SCO), Lanto Griffin, Lee Westwood (ENG), Matthew Fitzpatrick (ENG), Viktor Hovland (NOR), Im Sung-jae (KOR), Keegan Bradley
70-Andrew Putnam, Jordan Spieth, Cameron Tringale, Tommy Fleetwood (ENG), Peter Malnati, Matt Wallace (ENG), Christiaan Bezuidenhout (RSA), Rory Sabbatini (SVK), Paul Casey (ENG), Ian Poulter (ENG), Adam Long, Max Homa, Jason Day (AUS), Padraig Harrington (IRL)
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