Bay Hill rarely disappoints, and Thursday’s first round of the 2021 Arnold Palmer Invitational was no different than it has been for most of this century. A leaderboard that produced some hard fought scores, big superstars at the top and lots of drafts (even for former champions) is both a good and not an unusual one at Arnie’s tournament.
Rory McIlroy did what Rory McIlroy almost always does on Bay Hill. The four-time winner fired a 66 in round 1 to tie Corey Conners to the lead. McIlroy is number two over the last decade in strokes achieved on this course, only to Tiger Woods, who has won eight times here. It was not a surprise to see Rory’s name on the board early and often, but how he did it was perhaps a little different (more on that below).
It’s a board filled with elite ball strikes – McIlroy and Conners both fall into that class – and we’ll take a deeper dive into how some of the best players (and leaders) fared over the first 18 holes in this tournament.
T1. Corey Conners, Rory McIlroy (-6): The pre-tournament favorite remains the same, though his odds are much shorter now than a day ago. McIlroy had a stretch on his back nine where he birdied five straight holes, and when he saw it live, it felt like he would never make a pair again. He did, but he finished among the top five in driving, iron play and putting on Thursday, which is insane.
It was an unusual putting round for him (his best ever on Bay Hill), but the iron game is the most encouraging. He said he saw the ball run through the right windows on Thursday, meaning he might slip his right arm through a red cardigan Sunday night. Also his comfort around Bay Hill with a lead should be unsettling for the course.
“I’ve seen Tiger enough here over the years, and the way he played on this course was, he played it very conservatively, he took care of the par-5s, and it was usually good enough to get the job done,” said McIlroy. “Then take a bit of a leaf out of his book.”
Bryson DeChambeau (-5): Speaking of playing well on Bay Hill, DeChambeau fits that category pretty well with a second and a fourth in the last three years. He absolutely wiped out the driver on Thursday and nearly doubled the third-best player in the field in terms of strokes obtained from the tee. That led to a good score, even though he was so-so with the putter. The big hole ballao around his first round was whether he would try to run his tee shot across the lake on the par-5 6th hole. He did not, but he still made bird and said after his round that he could have done it with another driver.
“The crowds were big with it,” he said. “I pulled an iron like a joke out of the tee box. And for me it was just too much from the right and more in the wind than anything else … But if it was one of my normal drivers at 2,000 rpm altogether could have done it today, but if it’s more tailwind, I can do it tomorrow, hopefully or for a while this weekend. ”
T4. Jason Kokrak, Ben An, Sebastian Munoz (-4): What a crowd here! It’s not really surprising that these three would play well, at least one round. They are all quite strong from the tee (especially Kokrak) and solid from the tee to the green. On Thursday, they all knocked out of their minds, leading to a combined 12-under-day where the average score was 1 over.
T7. Viktor Hovland, Victor Perez, Martin Laird, Lanto Griffin, Lee Westwood, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Sungjae Im, Keegan Bradley (-3): No big surprises here, either, even if it’s not every day you get two Vic (k) tors in the top seven on a leaderboard. Hovland is the one who keeps an eye out of this group. He has been the best in the world from tee to green since 2021 started (slightly better than Dustin Johnson), and with six top 10s in his last seven starts, he was probably the hottest player to enter this tournament. He has 9-1 to win just behind McIlroy (3-1) and DeChambeau (9/2).
T15. Jordan Spieth, Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, Jason Day (-2): I throw Casey in here because he was my one-and-done choice, and he and Hovland probably flew most under the radar of someone in the field who has played well. Spieth was very Spieth-like on Thursday. Water ball at No. 6 (which should not be a bogey hole) an eagle of 16, putter rocking from all over the garden (he made four from 19 feet or longer). Here’s the good news out of it: He hit his irons well again. Ignore the rest of it and focus on it, and if you can see a consistent line (and you certainly can!), Then there is hope for the future for him.
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