McIlroy's late birdies steady ship as McDowell soars at Bay Hill

First round of 68 leaves McDowell three off lead; McIlroy cards level-par 72 in Orlando

Rory McIlroy plays a recovery shot on the eighth hole during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill in Orlando. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Defending champion Rory McIlroy lipped out on the 18th hole to miss out on a third straight birdie as he battled hard to rescue a round that was a little too wayward for his liking at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando on Thursday.

McIlroy had slipped out to two over after a fourth bogey of his round on the 15th, but the world number six birdied the par-5 16th and par-3 17th to get back to level for the round.

Driving just short of the lake on the 18th, McIlroy hit his approach to 22 feet but just as it looked like his putt was about to dive into the hole, it caught the edge and stayed above ground.

With most eyes on McIlroy, it another Northern Irishman who used the opportunity to slip in under the radar at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, as Graeme McDowell manoeuvred his way to the business part of the leaderboard.


Playing on a sponsor’s invitation, McDowell, down to 259th in the latest world rankings, rekindled some of his old form in overcoming a tough opening stretch, offsetting two early bogeys with a run that included four birdies and an eagle to sign for a four-under-par 68, that left him three strokes behind clubhouse leader Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain.

With three exemptions into the British Open at Royal Portrush in July also up for grabs at this week’s PGA Tour stop, McDowell – whose last win on tour came in the Mayakoba Classic in 2015 – has an added incentive to stay in the mix.

But McDowell has refused to allow that potential bonus to work into his psyche and instead is determined to focus on the task at hand.

“If I let Portrush get into my mind, the balance will become [an] imbalance. I haven’t played very well historically with a gun to my head. I’m more of a guy who likes to try and look at the big picture and let things happen . . . I haven’t done a good job when I put pressure on myself.”

McDowell – who is able to sleep in his own bed at home this week – got a slice of bad and good luck in the one go on his third hole, where a mud ball got on a trajectory of its own and was headed towards a water hazard only to rebound back onto the fairway off rocks. He was able to limit the damage to a bogey, and his response thereafter was to shift into another gear with birdies on the fourth, sixth and eighth to turn in 35 and then play the homeward run bogey-free with a birdie on the 10th and then a superb eagle on the Par-5 16th, where he hit his approach to 18 feet.

“It’s really important that you hit fairways this week here at Bay Hill. The rough is pretty lush and, with the greens being so firm, you just have zero control unless you’re in the fairway,” explained McDowell, who is aiming to make the most of his invitation in his quest to climb back up the world rankings and, perhaps, even secure that British Open exemption ticket.

“I want to be back up there competing with these guys and I do feel like I have some good stuff in me. But I’ve had to ask myself some pretty hard questions the last couple years. Thankfully I’ve came to the conclusion that if it was all gone, I would miss it. So, you know what, let’s try and enjoy it while it’s here.”

Shane Lowry – in the same group as McDowell – also had a tough start, bogeying his opening two holes. But the Offalyman, who will be based in the USA for the next few months, also recovered well and signed for an opening round 70 that featured six birdies and four bogeys. Lowry's hot streak of three successive birdies from the sixth proved to be a highlight.

McIlroy birdied the third but suffered back-to-back bogeys on the fourth and fifth to turn in 37 but got back to level par on his round with a birdie on the Par-5 12th. It was short-lived, though, as his approach on the 13th found water which resulted in a bogey five and he slipped out to two over after failing to get down from a greenside bunker on the 15th. But it was his finish that will have been been noted by the rest of the field.

USA unless stated, par 72):

65 Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Esp)

67 Keegan Bradley

68 Phil Mickelson , Graeme McDowell (NIrl), Billy Horschel, Bubba Watson, Patrick Rodgers

69 Francesco Molinari (Ita), Pat Perez , Scott Stallings, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng), Sung Kang (Kor), Jhonattan Vegas (Ven)

70 Adam Schenk , Jason Kokrak , Hudson Swafford, Roger Sloan (Can), Adam Hadwin (Can), Danny Lee (Nzl), Shane Lowry (Irl), Jimmy Walker, Martin Trainer , Kevin Kisner, Patrick Reed, Luke List, Zach Johnson , Lucas Glover, Kevin Streelman, Brendan Steele , Aaron Baddeley (Aus), Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng)

71 Bud Cauley , Matt Wallace (Eng), Nate Lashley , Justin Rose (Eng), Ernie Els (Rsa), JJ Spaun , Corey Conners (Can), JT Poston, Chris Kirk, Chesson Hadley , Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha), Joaquin Niemann (Chi), Keith Mitchell , Johnson Wagner, Sungjae Im (Kor), Ryan Moore

72 Carlos Ortiz (Mex), Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Tim Herron, Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Aaron Wise , Justin Suh (a), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Stewart Cink , Bronson Burgoon, DA Points , Rory McIlroy (NIrl), Marc Leishman (Aus), Eddie Pepperell (Eng), Dominic Bozzelli

73 Sam Saunders , Vijay Singh (Fij), Kevin Na , Ryan Blaum, Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Ian Poulter (Eng), Cheng-Tsung Pan (Tai), Michael Kim, Brandt Snedeker

74 Sam Ryder , Viktor Hovland (a) (Nor), Brian Gay, Scott Piercy, Charles Howell III , Robert Streb, Joel Dahmen, Brooks Koepka , Scott Langley, Sam Horsfield (Eng), Adam Long , Rickie Fowler, Anirban Lahiri (Ind)

75 Steve Stricker , Rod Perry , Charley Hoffman, Kyle Stanley, Vaughn Taylor , Austin Cook, Brian Harman, Bryson DeChambeau , Ryan Armour, Brice Garnett

76 Jason Dufner , Beau Hossler , Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Braden Thornberry, Harris English , Hunter Mahan, Michael Thompson, Ollie Schniederjans, Sam Burns

77 Haotong Li (Chn), Daniel Berger , Richy Werenski, Abraham Ancer (Mex), Bill Haas , Anders Albertson, Martin Laird (Sco), Henrik Stenson (Swe)

78 Scott Brown , JB Holmes , Danny Willett (Eng), Si Woo Kim (Kor)

79 Chris Stroud , Harold Varner III

80 Andrew Landry

81 Ted Potter Jr , Cameron Champ

82 Robert Gamez

83 Matt Every

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times