McIlroy aims to keep the pedal down after opening 66 in Orlando

World No 1 one shot off the lead after another fine display of ball striking at Bay Hill

 Rory McIlroy holds his ball after putting on the 15th green during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Florida. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

Rory McIlroy holds his ball after putting on the 15th green during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Florida. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

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In seeking to avoid a “fried” brain, Rory McIlroy is not thinking about the Masters. His form will leave others to speculate about the world No 1’s prospects at the first Major of the year, which is only a month away.

A first round 66 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational planted McIlroy at the summit of the leaderboard before Matt Every’s late surge saw him take a one-stroke advantage. Day one saw the kind of effortless, free-flowing golf which renders the Northern Irishman so appealing. The score was even more impressive given he was one over par after six holes.

His 18-hole scoring average is the best on this PGA Tour season. His goal from here is simple: to capitalise on a terrific start, which was not the case in Mexico City a fortnight ago. Even that apparent slip requires context, given McIlroy was visibly well short of his best over the concluding three rounds of the World Golf Championship.

“I’m definitely playing a bit better than I was in Mexico,” said McIlroy in what should serve as a warning to the rest of the field. “I’m putting better, driving it better. I think the course suits me a little bit better as well.

“Mexico was frustrating because I started well and then just couldn’t get the best out of myself for the final three days. I’m a little more comfortable on this course, comfortable with this style of play, and a little more comfortable on greens.

“I mean 54 holes is still a long way to go and you sort of take it one day at a time. It’s not as if I played badly in Mexico. I shot 69, 68, 68 the last three days. I just didn’t get as much out of myself as I wanted to.”

McIlroy’s moment on Thursday arrived at the fourth, his 13th, where he sent a glorious three-iron from a fairway bunker to within 25ft of the pin. He converted for an eagle.

“Harry [Diamond, McIlroy’s caddie] said that’s the best shot I’ve hit all year,” he said. “High praise from him. I had 260 yards, it was in between three-iron and five-wood. Five-wood was going to carry up on top but it had a chance to go over the back of the green and that chip from over the back to that back pin is really tricky.

“So I said to Harry: ‘If I can catch this three-iron I can maybe pitch it 10 or 15 yards short’. Short was always better than long. And it just came out perfectly and got up to pin high.”

Justin Rose, playing in McIlroy’s company, was two under par at one stage but had to settle for a 73. Intrigue surrounds Rose’s equipment; he signed a club deal with Honma from the start of 2019 and, while that brand still appears on his bag, he has suddenly reverted to TaylorMade irons and driver.

Brooks Koepka’s assessment of his 72 was typically blunt. “Even par, nothing to get excited about, nothing to rave about,” he said. “It’s not far off but it’s still annoying.”

Matt Wallace enjoyed a welcome return to form with a 69. Tyrrell Hatton’s impressive start to the year continued as he signed for one shot better than his fellow Englishman. “I just putted really well,” Hatton said.

“I actually feel like I struggled a bit with shots into the green but just putted nicely and that was a big part of the score.”

Graeme McDowell also enjoyed a fine opening round, a four-under 68 leaving him well positioned in a share of fifth spot, while Ryder Cup captain Pádraig Harrington opened with a two-over 74. – Guardian

LEADERBOARD
USA unless stated, (a) denotes amateurs, par 72

65 Matt Every

66 Rory McIlroy (N Irl)

67 Scottie Scheffler, Talor Gooch

68 Graeme McDowell (N Irl), Brendon Todd, Sam Burns, Christiaan Bezuidenhout (Rsa), Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Keith Mitchell

69 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Matt Wallace (Eng), Scott Brown, Rob Oppenheim, Sung Kang (Kor), Adam Long, Ian Poulter (Eng), Harris English

70 Rory Sabbatini (Svk), Charley Hoffman, Matthew NeSmith, Harold Varner III, Tom Hoge, Kevin Na, Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Xinjun Zhang (Chn), Collin Morikawa, Sungjae Im (Kor), Patrick Reed, Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng)

71 Bud Cauley, Jason Kokrak, Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Danny Willett (Eng), Scott Piercy, Lanto Griffin, Kevin Streelman, Danny Lee (Nzl), Marc Leishman (Aus), Scott Harrington, Rickie Fowler, Dylan Frittelli (Rsa), Troy Merritt, Ryan Moore

72 Rod Perry, Steve Stricker, Andrew Putnam, Robby Shelton, Zach Johnson, Davis Love III, Stewart Cink, Kyoung-hoon Lee (Kor), Kevin Chappell, Si Woo Kim (Kor), Joel Dahmen, Brooks Koepka, Max Homa, Harry Higgs, Billy Horschel

73 Vaughn Taylor, Brian Gay, Doc Redman, Justin Rose (Eng), Bryson DeChambeau, Jimmy Walker, Patrick Rodgers, Nick Taylor (Can), Corey Conners (Can), Matthew Wolff, Xander Schauffele, Alex Noren (Swe), Beau Hossler, Brendan Steele, Keegan Bradley, Maverick McNealy, Denny McCarthy, Abraham Ancer (Mex), Jim Herman, Tyler Duncan

74 Carlos Ortiz (Mex), Sepp Straka (Aut), Viktor Hovland (Nor), Mark Hubbard, Cameron Champ, Wyndham Clark, Zac Blair, Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Esp), Kevin Kisner, Anirban Lahiri (Ind), Lee Westwood (Eng), (a) Chun Ant Yu (Tpe), Jason Day (Aus), Sam Saunders, Bubba Watson, Joaquin Niemann (Chi), Cheng-Tsung Pan (Tai), Pádraig Harrington (Irl)

75 Matt Jones (Aus), Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Sam Ryder, Lucas Glover, Charles Howell III, Brendon Matthews, Tony Finau, Sebastian Munoz (Col), Russell Knox (Sco)

76 Hank Lebioda, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng)

77 Phil Mickelson, Brian Stuard, Vijay Singh (Fij), Pat Perez, Adam Scott (Aus), Brian Harman, Henrik Stenson (Swe)

78 Henrik Norlander (Swe), Kevin Tway

79 Nate Lashley

80 Jazz Janewattananond (Tha)

83 Robert Gamez

84 JT Poston

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