His old self strode the fairways of Bay Hill with an aura, a bounce to his step that followed one fine swing after another. Rory McIlroy - the champion in 2018 - signed for a wonderfully crafted opening round of seven-under-par 65 in the Arnold Palmer Invitational to take the first round lead and provide immediate evidence that he has taken his A-Game to Arnie's Place.
“I think you turn up at any golf course where you’ve had success, and automatically you’re going to have some confidence coming in. I’ve shot some really nice scores here. I feel there’s a nice flow to this golf course where you can really build a score. You have par fives, one every few holes, and you’ve got a couple of scorable par fours.
"As long as you don't do anything stupid and you keep it in play, you feel like you can methodically build a score," said McIlroy, who claimed an early three stroke lead over a group that featured Graeme McDowell, Adam Scott, Sungjae Im and Will Zalatoris. He ended the day with a two-shot lead over the American trio of Beau Hossler, JJ Spaun and Billy Horschel
Ironically enough given his mastery through most of his round, a bogey on 11th - where he missed the green with his approach - kicked McIlroy, who started on the 10th hole, into life. That dropped shot was followed by a bounceback birdie on the 12th, one of six in his round (to go with others at the 13th, 18th, third, fourth and sixth) while the standout moment came on the par five 16th where he rolled in a 41-footer for an eagle three.
“I love watching him swing a golf club. I think almost everyone in the world would say that. He’s a guy I like watching play,” remarked Scott, who was in the same group.
It wasn’t all perfect but, nevertheless, McIlroy hit 11 of 14 fairways, 12 of 18 greens and had just 26 putts in putting together a round that propelled him to the top of the leaderboard.
In only his fourth start of 2022 and with a couple of close calls already, most notably in Dubai, McIlroy remarked of his desire to claim another career win:
“I feel like I’m playing well enough to have chances to win golf tournaments, but all you can ask of yourself is to keep putting yourself in those positions on Sundays, and then you see where your game really is. Hopefully, this is another week where I put myself in a position where I can really see where my game is when the pressure’s on.”
You didn’t need to be a soothsayer to predict that McIlroy would be among the contenders for the title at Bay Hill. The case of McDowell, though, differed hugely: now ranked 399th in the world and with six missed cuts from his last seven starts, the Northern Irishman had shown no evidence of producing a fine 68 that could have been even better but for a closing bogey on the ninth, his 18th hole of the round.
McDowell’s hot streak featured a run of three successive birdies from the second, where he hit his tee-shot to nine feet on the par three.
Surprised? Not really. As he explained: "I've been trending in the right direction. I've been struggling to put it all together lately, but there's been a lot of good stuff happening with my game the last three or four months. Scores maybe haven't suggested it, but I played fantastic in Phoenix a couple weeks ago and just made nothing. I got off to a great start in Palm Springs and just didn't continue it.
“There’s been a lot of really, really good stuff happening in my game. I feel like I’m in a good place mentally and trying to layer good days on top of good days at the minute and seeing where that takes me. I’m trying to be really patient with it as well. I enjoyed it out there. It was a nice walk this morning on a tough golf course. Like I say, it’s been simmering. I’ve just got to keep knocking on the door and see what happens.”
Leona Maguire opened with a solid 70, two-under-par, to trail Thailand's Patty Tavatanakit by three strokes after the first round of the HSBC World Championship in Singapore.
In her first outing since her breakthrough LPGA Tour win in the Drive On last month, Maguire - who revealed she’d spent time in saunas in Ireland to prepare for the sweltering conditions - remarked of her round which left her in a share of 19th place:
“I didn’t feel like I had much momentum, didn’t drive the ball quite as well as I would have liked and left a few putts out there . . . . it’s obviously very hot, so I’m trying to stay as cool as possible, trying to stay in the shade as much as possible, drink plenty of water, electrolytes, all of that. Managing energy levels will be key this week.”
In the Magical Kenya Open at Muthaiga Golf Club in Nairobi on the DP World Tour, England's Daniel Gavins - who went on a remarkable run of seven birdies in eight holes at one point - carded a seven-under-par 64 to claim a one stroke lead over American Johannes Veerman and India's Shubhankar Sharma.
A quartet of Irish players signed for 70s, one-under-par, with Cormac Sharvin, Paul Dunne, Gavin Moynihan and Niall Kearney all on that number in a group of no fewer than 15 players on that mark in tied-40th.