Rory McIlroy (unknowingly) beats the Augusta hype train, Jon Rahm struggles and Bay Hill fights back | Golf News and Tour Information
There are days when Rory McIlroy makes this most vexing game look impossibly easy, when he swings free, kicks like a kid, and bounces like he owns the place. Thursday was one of those days. McIlroy opened the Arnold Palmer Invitational with an under-65 seven on a Bay Hill course with juicy, ubiquitous water hazards, and he finds himself in a familiar position after one lap: alone, at the top of the leaderboard. Here are four takeaways from the first round of Arnie’s event.
Start the Rory-Augusta hype train
Whenever McIlroy plays well in February or March, the temptation is to judge his form against Augusta National. Rory and the Masters are star-crossed lovers; it remains the only major championship he hasn’t won, the final checkpoint he must pass to complete the Grand Slam of his career and secure his place among golf’s immortals. We’re still over a month away from that ceremonial first tee shot, but McIlroy’s play will absolutely have his fans dreaming of a green jacket.
The easing of COVID travel restrictions allowed McIlroy to fly his longtime coach, Michael Bannon, to the United States from Northern Ireland. (You may recall that he worked briefly with Pete Cowen, a stint that now seems complete). Bannon and McIlroy worked hard to make his clubface more neutral up top and make the left arm feel like he was driving the backswing, not the right. This may sound like gibberish to you, but it’s definitely clicked for Rory, who is quietly whipping up a pretty tasty stretch here. Since winning the CJ Cup last year, McIlroy has achieved the following official rankings: WIN/T-6/T-12/3rd/T-10.
McIlroy started Thursday’s round on the 10th tee and bogeyed his second hole of the day, only to bounce back with back-to-back birdies and a 41-foot eagle putt on the par-5 16th. According to the Golf Channel show, it was the longest eagle putt McIlroy had made in his entire PGA Tour career, and he played Bay Hill’s four par 5s in five under par. He shot three under 33s and played his back nine under 32s with no bogey to put himself in the perfect position to add a second API trophy (he won it in 2018) to his mantle.
McIlroy said he’s been feeling more comfortable lately – he tends to slack off a bit with his readings and setup – despite losing a weapon in his arsenal when the calendar moved to 2022.
“I actually really appreciated not having a green book. I have the impression that it has me more in the putts. I feel like I’m more… I don’t read a green paper as much. Honestly, I feel like it’s benefited me for the past few weeks, and that’s a good thing.
You know who doesn’t allow green books either? National Augustus.
CONTINUED: Inside the distance book at Bay Hill
Don’t be fooled by a ride – Bay Hill can bite
McIlroy’s score may make Bay Hill look like it played like a normal PGA Tour setup. That would be incorrect. The rough is always longer than average at Arnie, but this year’s lettuce seems to be very chunky – and the grainy Bermuda greens already have that sweetness.
“They’re already cooking,” said Will Zalatoris, who shot 68. “Scottie [Scheffler] and I was joking about how we struggled to get our putter heads solid on the green because it’s so gritty and glassy. It’s also the best I’ve ever seen.
“It’s going to be fun. The weekend is going to be tough.”
Adam Scott achieved the same score despite not having a driver in his bag – he goes for a 3 wood for accuracy – by getting his shoes dirty all day.
“The rough is incredibly thick,” said the Aussie. “It’s a half-shot penalty almost every time you hit it. I didn’t think it was that easy because I didn’t hit all the fairways either.
Sepp Straka, who won the Honda Classic four days ago, shot 76. Tom Hoge, who finished third in the FedEx Cup, shot 78. So did Cameron Tringale, the PGA Tour ATM, and Garrick Higgo , the promising young South African. Seamus Power, who has been great for the past six months or so, couldn’t break 80. If the wind picks up through the weekend, we could be in for a repeat of API 2020, when Tyrell Hatton won at four under and only one player beat 70 on Sunday.
CONTINUED: Jason Day’s mother dies of cancer aged 65
For Rory and Adam, the feeling is mutual
Ask about the best golf swings on tour and you’ll hear a lot of two names: Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott. The two played together on Thursday, and both played pretty well, as we just said.
“I love playing with Rory,” Scott said. “I really love watching him play. He’s a guy that I can watch play and have positive thoughts for myself. I love watching him swing a golf club. I think almost everyone in the world would say that. But he’s a guy I like to watch play. Usually he can raise my level of golf, especially when he’s playing like he did today.
McIlroy was later made aware of Scott’s rave review.
“Yeah, every time I play with Adam, they’re a good couple,” McIlroy said. “We discuss all kinds of things. I feel like we have a lot in common. Yeah, anyone could watch Adam Scott rock the club all day. He has a good pace. Yeah, that’s nice. If he’s feeding off of me, I definitely think I’m feeding off of him as well.
Is Jon Rahm… falling apart?
It’s a patently ridiculous question to even ask, but Rahm has been on a patently ridiculous consistency race…until the past few weeks. The world No. 1 saw his streak of 34 consecutive rounds of par or better come to an end on Friday at the Genesis Invitational and needed a nervous five-footer on his final hole just to make the cut. A final day at six under propelled him all the way to T-21, but it’s still a disappointing week for a guy who lives on the front page of the rankings.
Rahm would have shot an under 71 Thursday at Bay Hill if he hadn’t smashed a putt that couldn’t have been longer than eight inches. No, seriously, it really happened.
“I really couldn’t tell you,” Rahm said of the crash. “I wish I could give you all the excuses in the world, but no, it’s as simple as…you know, I didn’t feel good in my hands, and I tried to quit, and I don’t I just didn’t. I just didn’t stop. I don’t know. It was very strange.
But six inches counts as much as 300 yards in this game, and so Rahm stands tied and could possibly find himself in another battle with the cup. It would make Collin Morikawa’s path to world No. 1 a little easier. Now that we’ve written that, Rahm is shooting six cents tomorrow. To book.