Rocky patch leaves Rory McIlroy off the pace in Orlando

High winds and cold hits players in opening round of Arnold Palmer Invitational

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

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

 

Patience was like a 15th club in the bag for players in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, as a cool swirling wind – “It was more like [playing in] Scotland than Florida,” quipped Italian Francesco Molinari – made for a tough scoring opening day.

Rory McIlroy, the world number three, may have been more familiar with such conditions than most but discovered he was not immune. In only his second competitive outing since returning from the stress fracture to his rib which disrupted his early-season schedule, McIlroy was undone by a double-bogey six on the 11th in signing for a 74, two over par.

McIlroy – gearing up for the Masters next month and playing without strapping for the first time since his injury – had a poor run around the turn where he took three to get down from the fringe of the 10th green and then ran up a double-bogey six on the 11th. There, McIlroy’s approach from a fairway bunker to the green plunged into a water hazard. A penalty drop was followed by a pitch to 40 feet and two putts for an ugly double.

And McIlroy had further drama on the 18th hole where, after a drive of 325 yards, the longest of the day, and with only a wedge in his hands for the approach shot, he was caught out by the wind and saw his ball hit the rocks. Fortunately for him, it ricocheted back across the green and settled into a greenside bunker. But he failed to save his par, splashing out to eight feet but missing the putt.

Graeme McDowell – one of the tournament hosts honouring Arnold Palmer’s memory – started with a bogey on his first hole and finished with a horse-shoe out putt for birdie on the 18th. In between, G-Mac had three birdies and a further two bogeys, in signing for a level-par 72.

Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo – among the earlier starters – claimed the clubhouse lead with a hugely impressive 67, five under, that was all the more worthy for the fact that he opened with bogeys on two of his first four holes. Once he got that start out of his system, Grillo produced seven birdies for the rest of the journey.

“It was more like British weather out there, very tough conditions,” said Grillo. “The first four holes were really difficult keeping warm, even after that it was a bit warmer but I couldn’t feel my hands. If I had my hands out of my pockets for a minute or two, I would be freezing.”

Grillo earned Rookie of the Year honours on the PGA Tour last season but has been relatively quiet so far this season, with a best finish so far of tied-33rd in the Farmers Insurance at Torrey Pines.

“I know that I’m not really comfortable playing on the West Coast. That’s just how my game works . . . I think once we get it here to the Florida swing, my game starts to warm up a little bit. I felt like I played good the last two tournaments, but I just didn’t play good for four rounds. I played good for three, and out here that’s going to cost you,” said Grillo who made life easier on himself by finding 10 of his closing 11 fairways.

Jason Day, reappearing on tour after missing out on the recent WGC-Mexico championship due to illness, opened with a two-under-par 70 on what he described as “a brutally chilly day.” Cold or not, his first round had him in position to challenge.

Danny Willett was forced to withdraw prior to the first round due to illness. “Really sad to have to withdraw from the @APinv I’ve been up all night with terrible sickness.. Not ideal but felt it worse to take a spot from the first reserve if I wasn’t able to finish . . . come Sunday I’m sure there’ll be great champ once again,” tweeted Willett, who defends his Masters title in three weeks’ time.

Another Englishman had more cause for optimism, as Matthew Fitzpatrick moved alongside Grillo on five under after his first round.

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