Rory McIlroy hangs tough but has work to do at Bay Hill

Eagle keeps defending champion alive as Fleetwood shines in Arnold Palmer Invitational

Rory McIlroy signed for a second round of 70 at Bay Hill. Photograph: Sam Greenwood/Getty

If one hole encapsulated Rory McIlroy's stubborn desire to keep his hands on the Arnold Palmer Invitational trophy, it was the 29-year-old Northern Irishman's play of the Par 5 sixth, his 15th hole of the second round. It was here that the defending champion pounded a 305 yards drive across the lake to find the fairway, then hit his mid-iron approach to eight feet and rolled in the eagle putt.

Those three strokes in a round of 70 for a midway total of two-under-par 142 ensured McIlroy moved in the right direction up the leaderboard, although he still has a lot of work to do if he is to claim back-to-back wins at Bay Hill Club & Lodge as other European invaders moved with considerable menace in having designs on the title.

One of those Europeans in particular made a right old charge. Tommy Fleetwood’s dalliance with the PGA Tour could - like McIlroy’s - become a more permanent move. And the Englishman’s second round 66 for a 36-holes total of nine-under-par 135, which featured two eagles, gave the long-haired Fleetwood a share of the halfway lead, with America’s Keegan Bradley, and designs on a breakthrough tour win on US soil.

“I’ve done a lot of good things over the last two, three years,” said Fleetwood, who topped the European Tour order of merit in 2017. “I think (what’s) pretty clear in our minds that the next logical step (would be) to win in America or win on the PGA Tour and then see where we go from there. I got off to a pretty slow start to the year so if I can keep improving and doing the right things and focusing on myself, hopefully that will be the result of things.”


Fleetwood has opted to spend more time playing stateside - having earned the right to full PGA Tour playing rights, his first appearance back in Europe likely to be in the British Masters in May which he hosts - and that decision looked to be a wise one after working his way to the top of the leaderboard.

“I’m leading the tournament now, but (on Thursday) through the first 10 holes I could have easily been out of the tournament. I was struggling. But short game keeps you in it and all of a sudden you play some good golf and you can build some momentum. There’s not a golfer in the top-5, top-10, top-25 in the world who doesn’t have one of the best short games going. It’s pretty important,” explained Fleetwood of how his short game wizardry was primarily responsible for him making the upward move.

At least McIlroy still has the chance to challenge over the weekend, when the $1.6 million winner’s cheque will be determined.

Brooks Koepka - last year's PGA Tour player of the year following his wins in the US Open and US PGA championships - was among those to miss the cut and Rickie Fowler was also among those to struggle. As Phil Mickelson - who followed up an opening 68 with a second round 78 - observed of the setup, "it's a penalising course if you don't hit very good shots, and I hit some terrible shots."

McIlroy’s round showed a desire to hang tough. His round of 70 was a slow-burner - two bogeys and one birdie on his front nine - but he came home in 33 strokes, the highlight being that eagle on the Par 5 sixth.

Graeme McDowell - more aware than anyone of the three exemptions into the British Open that are up for grabs to players finishing in the top-10 who aren’t already qualified for Royal Portrush - started his second round on four-under and had seven straight pars before bogeying his eighth hole, the 17th. His response was to birdie the 18th (his ninth) from 18 feet, but he then went on to bogey his first two holes after the turn, leaving him on two under par for the tournament through 12.

McDowell steadied the ship with four successive pars before another bogey on the seventh saw him slip a shot further back. He signed for a disappointing second round of 75 which leaves him one under par at the halfway stage and in a share of 42nd place.

Tommy Fleetwood raced up the leaderboard thanks to a second round of 66. Photograph: Sam Greenwood/Getty

Shane Lowry got a cruel piece of luck when his chip on the Par 3 14th (his fifth hole of the second round, having started on the 10th) hit a greenside sprinkler head and ricocheted back off the green. Lowry had three bogeys and a lone birdie on his front nine to slip back to level par through 27 holes before rolling in a 20-footer for birdie at the first to begin his homeward journey.

Any momentum soon evaporated, however, as he followed a bogey on the second (his 11th) with a disastrous triple-bogey seven on the third, after he found water with his second shot. That left him on three over par for the tournament and battling to make the one over par cut mark, with six holes to play.

He rallied briefly with a birdie on the fourth but went on to drop three more shots en-route to a second round 79. At five over par, Lowry missed the cut by four strokes.

Collated second round scores & totals in the USPGA Tour Arnold Palmer Invitational (USA unless stated, par 72):

135 Keegan Bradley 67 68, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng) 69 66

139 Francesco Molinari (Ita) 69 70, Roger Sloan (Can) 70 69, Keith Mitchell71 68, Billy Horschel 68 71, Kevin Kisner70 69, Jhonattan Vegas (Ven) 69 70

140 Aaron Baddeley (Aus) 70 70, Matt Wallace (Eng) 71 69, Bubba Watson 68 72, Eddie Pepperell (Eng) 72 68, Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa) 65 75, Sungjae Im (Kor) 71 69, Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng) 70 70, Patrick Reed70 70

141 Zach Johnson 70 71, Lucas Glover 70 71, Sung Kang (Kor) 69 72, Martin Kaymer (Ger) 72 69, Sam Saunders 73 68, Charles Howell III74 67, Brendan Steele 70 71, Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha) 71 70, Justin Rose (Eng) 71 70, Ian Poulter (Eng) 73 68, Jimmy Walker 70 71, Martin Trainer70 71, Patrick Rodgers 68 73, J.J. Spaun71 70

142 Luke List 70 72, Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn) 72 70, Pat Perez 69 73, Tim Herron72 70, Aaron Wise72 70, Beau Hossler 76 66, Chesson Hadley71 71, Kevin Streelman 70 72, Rory McIlroy (NIrl) 72 70, Joaquin Niemann (Chi) 71 71, Marc Leishman (Aus) 72 70

143 JT Poston 71 72, Adam Schenk 70 73, Carlos Ortiz (Mex) 72 71, Jason Kokrak 70 73, Graeme McDowell (NIrl) 68 75, Sam Ryder74 69, Scott Stallings69 74, D.A. Points 72 71, Sam Horsfield (Eng) 74 69, Johnson Wagner 71 72, Anirban Lahiri (Ind) 74 69, Ryan Moore 71 72, Henrik Stenson (Swe) 77 66

144 Steve Stricker 75 69, Chris Kirk 71 73, Hudson Swafford 70 74, Byeong-Hun An (Kor) 72 72, Viktor Hovland (a) (Nor) 74 70, Scott Piercy 74 70, Brandt Snedeker73 71

145 Adam Hadwin (Can) 70 75, Harris English 76 69, Hunter Mahan76 69, Sam Burns76 69, Adam Long 74 71, Ryan Blaum 73 72, Tyrrell Hatton (Eng) 70 75, Bryson DeChambeau75 70, Rickie Fowler74 71

Cut to take place at end of Round 2 for scores of no more than 145

The players below missed the cut

146 Bud Cauley71 75, Charley Hoffman75 71, Vaughn Taylor75 71, Kyle Stanley 75 71, Austin Cook75 71, Bronson Burgoon72 74, Kevin Na 73 73, Phil Mickelson 68 78, Vijay Singh (Fij) 73 73, Michael Thompson 76 70, Ernie Els (Rsa) 71 75, Thorbjorn Olesen (Den) 73 73, Cheng-Tsung Pan (Tai) 73 73, Brice Garnett75 71

147 Danny Lee (Nzl) 70 77, Brooks Koepka 74 73, Brian Gay 74 73, Justin Suh (a)72 75, Michael Kim 73 74, Braden Thornberry76 71

148 J.B. Holmes 78 70, Ollie Schniederjans 76 72, Martin Laird (Sco) 77 71, Ryan Armour75 73, Nate Lashley 71 77, Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa) 76 72

149 Daniel Berger 77 72, Shane Lowry (Irl) 70 79, Andrew Landry80 69, Brian Harman 75 74, Robert Streb74 75, Corey Conners (Can) 71 78

150 Joel Dahmen 74 76, Jason Dufner 76 74, Danny Willett (Eng) 78 72, Si Woo Kim (Kor) 78 72

151 Richy Werenski 77 74, Haotong Li (Chn) 77 74, Abraham Ancer (Mex) 77 74, Ted Potter, Jr. 81 70, Harold Varner III79 72, Stewart Cink 72 79, Dominic Bozzelli72 79, Cameron Champ81 70

152 Anders Albertson 77 75

154 Scott Langley 74 80, Scott Brown 78 76

155 Rod Perry 75 80

156 Bill Haas 77 79, Matt Every 83 73

157 Chris Stroud 79 78

164 Robert Gamez 82 82

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times