ORLANDO, Fla. – There may be no better place than Bay Hill and no better tournament than the Arnold Palmer Invitational for Rory McIlroy to get on a roll.
Following Tiger Woods’ lead helps, too.
McIlroy, the former world No. 1 and four-time major winner, put himself in prime position to snap his winless streak dating to the 2019 World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions with a sparkling 6-under-par 66 Thursday to grab the lead in the opening round of Arnie’s annual bash.
McIlroy made five consecutive birdies on his front nine, two more on the back and made just one bogey and put his signature to one of his best rounds of the year.
“I’ve watched Tiger enough here over the years and the way he played this course was, he played it very conservatively, he took care of the par-5s, and that was usually good enough to get the job done,” McIlroy said. “So sort of take a little bit of a leaf out of his book.”
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Not a bad read, for Woods won a record eight times here. As for McIlroy, he has four top-6 finishes the past four years, including victory in 2018.
“I feel like you don’t have to do anything special to shoot a good score here,” McIlroy added. “You can be really conservative off the tees if you want to be. There’s a bunch of irons that you can hit off tees.
“I think the toughest thing about this course is the par-3s and I played them in 3-under today. So that was a bonus.”
McIlroy, 31, held a 1-shot lead over Bryson DeChambeau, who didn’t try to drive the green by hitting across the massive lake on the par-5 6th but still birdied the hole and added five more for a 67. Jason Kokrak shot 68 and three players were at 69 with many others still on the course.
McIlroy, with 18 PGA Tour titles and 27 victories overall worldwide, has gone 23 starts without winning. He was the hottest player before the COVID-19 global pandemic shut down the PGA Tour. While he’s had 10 top-10s during the stretch, he’s fallen to No. 8 in the world, his lowest ranking since 2019.
“The nice thing is it’s feeling better and better basically every time I go out there on the golf course,” McIlroy said. “I saw a lot of really positive signs out there today, which is really encouraging.”
Especially the 5-irons he hit on the 14th and 17th, two difficult par-3s, that led to birdies.
“Just little draws into the wind, flighted it the way I wanted to,” he said. “Those shots last week that I was trying to hit were missing the target 20 yards left. So it was nice to just see them coming out in the window I was anticipating.”
McIlroy also gains confidence looking at the stat sheet.
“I’ve always felt comfortable here,” McIlroy said. “I saw a stat the other day that this course, more than any other on the PGA Tour, the correlation between strokes gained off the tee and performance at this course is higher than anywhere else and obviously myself and Bryson, No. 1 and 2 in strokes gained off the tee for the season, and we both shot two good scores today.”